WASHINGTON — Three members of Congress from Alabama and Colorado have asked NASA to provide information on what they perceive to be an “epidemic of anomalies” on missions performed by SpaceX.
“Recent news reports have shown that an epidemic of anomalies have occurred during SpaceX launches or launch attempts,” write Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in a July 15 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Those anomalies cited in the letter include issues with both SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, ranging from “multiple” helium leaks to seawater intrusions into the Dragon spacecraft after splashdown.
The congressmen — all representing states where SpaceX competitor United Launch Alliance has major operations — are seeking information from NASA about those incidents because of the role the agency has played in support the development of Falcon 9 and Dragon, and as a customer of the cargo resupply services they provide the international space station. “In the interest of full disclosure and accountability to the American taxpayer, we request that NASA publicly release all anomalies and mishap information, un-redacted, so that Congress can gain a better understanding of what has occurred and ensure full transparency,” they write. They also ask for information “on the various aspects of risk and reliability with these programs” and the agency’s “understanding of the specific technical issues, failures and resulting consequences for ISS.”
The members’ argument for providing this information is NASA’s support for the development of Falcon 9 and Dragon. “Again, because the vehicles in question were funded by American taxpayer dollars, there should be no issue in making this report publicly available,” they write. However, development of Falcon 9 and Dragon was supported, but not exclusively funded, by NASA through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, using Space Act Agreements versus conventional contracts. SpaceX supplemented the NASA funding with its own; SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk has said on a number of occasions that the company used no NASA funding for development of the Falcon 9.
SpaceX does have a contract with NASA for ISS resupply, but that contract is for cargo services: that is, NASA is buying transport of cargo to and from the station, and not the launch vehicle and spacecraft itself, and thus the agency may not have the technical insight that the congressmen expect. In addition, providing “un-redacted” technical information publicly, even if it is available to NASA, could run afoul of export control restrictions.
The timing of the letter coincides with a July 16 hearing by subcommittees of the Senate Commerce Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee on space access. The Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee is chaired by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who is running for reelection this fall; Rep. Gardner is the Republican challenger to Udall.
In their letter, the congressmen say they support competition for national security launches under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, but worry that “the process may be weakened due to recent attacks on the Air Force regarding oversight and the need to certify providers launching national security payloads. We strongly support the Air Force certification process and object to any effort to bypass it or loosen its standards.”
The congressmen issued their letter the same day as the Air Force confirmed that it had certified as successful the second and third Falcon 9 v1.1 launches, a major milestone towards the overall certification of the launch vehicle for national security payloads. “I applaud SpaceX on achieving the three flights,” said Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, in the statement. “With this significant part of the agreed-to path in certifying the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch system complete, we look forward to working with SpaceX to complete the remaining certification activities and providing SpaceX with the opportunity to compete for EELV missions.”
The Air Force launches most national security payloads on Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rockets built by Denver-based United Launch Alliance in Decatur, Alabama. SpaceX is suing the Air Force in federal court to overturn a block-buy of 36 Atlas 5 and Delta 5 cores for national security missions. Both the Air Force and United Launch Alliance have petitioned the court to dismiss the suit.
A version of this story originally appeared on spacepolitics.com. Used with permission.