Learning from the unaccountability of Elon Musk’s SpaceX cadets.
President Trump could use the boost that would come with draining a prominent swamp, and there happens to be one now that could use it.
Elon Musk, the owner of SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX — among other government-sponsored businesses — has made a number of costly mistakes in the space industry… mistakes that taxpayers underwrite because they are responsible for his efforts within NASA.
In June 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded less than three minutes after its launch, effectively throwing $110 million in taxpayer funds down the tubes. Although the company failed in its objectives, Musk still profited handsomely – his company still received 80 percent of the government’s paycheck for this mission.
Fast forward two years, and and we’re still waiting to learn how it happened or what was done to correct the problem.
NASA promised last year it would investigate and release the results by this summer. But it announced a few weeks ago it would not be telling us what happened because “NASA is not required to complete a formal final report or public summary since it was an FAA licensed flight.”
So, NASA hides its contractors’ mistakes? That’s regrettable, but it’s hardly unique. But that’s not entirely the case here.
In October 2014, an Antares rocket, produced by Orbital, failed, causing $51 million in damage to NASA supplies. It also was an FAA-licensed commercial launch on which NASA is allegedly not required to report. It even was conducted under the same program — NASA Commercial Resupply Services — as SpaceX.
But within a year, NASA had released a summary of the accident involving Orbital and recommendations for improvements.
Somehow, no matter what, we have a hard time getting answers out of SpaceX – or any other Musk entities for that matter. We lavish government funding on them — $5 billion and counting — but that money never seems to come with the accountability requirements imposed on others.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has noticed this as well. Two years ago, Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, wrote NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to say the “discrepancy” in how SpaceX is treated as opposed to others “raises questions about not only the equity and fairness of NASA’s process for initiating independent accident investigations, but also the fidelity of the investigations themselves.”
Bolden responded that SpaceX was investigating itself — along with a non-voting member of the Federal Aviation Administration — and that he had ordered NASA’s Launch Services Program to lead a review that would “lead to an in-depth understanding of events.” Apparently, that understanding has been achieved — and deemed unworthy for public release.
That could be because SpaceX’s findings and those of the Launch Services Program investigation did not match up. SpaceX contended its supplier was solely to blame for the accident; the NASA office found several credible potential causes of the explosion, including — wait for it — quality control issues at SpaceX.
In February 2016, Bolden wrote to SpaceX “expressing concerns about the company’s systems engineering and management practices, hardware installation and repair methods, and telemetry systems based on LSP’s review of the failure.”
NASA’s inspector general would not go even that far, reducing Bolden’s letter to a footnote in its report and recommending NASA create a more coherent approach to these investigations — for use next time.
Next time arrived just a few months later, in September 2016, when another Falcon 9 wasted the entirety of a $62 million government contract.
Now, even the Senate has had enough. The Senate Appropriations Committee included a provision in the report language for its budget legislation directing the Federal Aviation Administration to produce a report on the June 2015 incident within 30 days of the bill’s passage.
It’s time NASA tell us what SpaceX got wrong in 2015 and again in 2016. There seems no downside to the agency. If SpaceX is not up to the tasks for which it receives federal money, we need to find others who are. Either way, we need to rebuild trust that such investigations are taken seriously and conducted to illuminate rather than conceal shortcomings.
There are tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars at stake. But there is something more. There is the trust the government will look honestly at its mistakes and try seriously to call them out and use the information to improve, not sweep them under the rug because a crony of the last administration would look bad otherwise.