Editorial | SpaceX in the Cross Hairs

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As it gains momentum, Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s bid to shake up the U.S. government launch business has stirred up a fair amount of noise lately among Washington stakeholders in the status quo.

The latest case in point is the push by some lawmakers for details on anomalies that have occurred in past launches of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Not surprisingly, these lawmakers hail from states that host facilities operated by United Launch Alliance, from which SpaceX is trying to wrest a share of the mostly Defense Department business.

In a July 15 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden that was released to media, Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) demanded information on what they characterized as an “epidemic of anomalies” with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule. The lawmakers cited the fact that the vehicles are funded by U.S. taxpayers in calling for public release of details in unredacted form.

The letter referenced a similar request made in April by Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. The U.S. Air Force’s response to that request, in the form of a May 20 letter from Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, was heavily redacted to protect proprietary SpaceX information.

The lawmakers’ frustration is understandable. Though ostensibly a commercial operator, SpaceX has indeed received a lot of U.S. government money, both for vehicle development and for launch services, and has been — with NASA’s blessing — stingy with information about anomalies that have occurred on its launches to date, including those conducted for the civil space agency.

Given that Congress is being asked to fund both the civil and military utilization of SpaceX’s services, lawmakers have every right to seek greater transparency.

But the wording of their requests hints at another motivation: to discredit SpaceX in the public eye. The use of the term “epidemic” in the July 15 letter, to cite one example, was a bit much. So was Mr. Rogers’ suggestion that astronauts aboard the international space station might have gone hungry had SpaceX’s second resupply mission, during which the Dragon cargo capsule experienced thruster problems, failed to deliver.

Of course, the Commercial Resupply Services-2 mission ultimately was successful. In fact, all of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets have succeeded to date in their primary missions, even if one flight was tarnished by an engine anomaly that resulted in the loss of a secondary payload, an Orbcomm machine-to-machine communications satellite.

Mr. Rogers and the others expressed concern about the integrity of the process by which the Air Force is working to certify Falcon 9 to carry national security payloads. This would open up a sizable market — bigger and longer-lasting than SpaceX’s space station resupply business with NASA — that ULA has essentially had to itself since 2006. SpaceX has submitted data from three recent Falcon 9 missions as required for certification, and the Air Force is going through the data now, with hopes to finish as soon as December.

In a statement to SpaceNews, the strategic forces subcommittee chairman pointed to Ms. James’ response to his inquiry — it isn’t clear whether he was referring to the part that was made public, which wasn’t all that illuminating, or the redacted part — as evidence of why the certification process is “robust and deliberate.” He said the response also makes clear — though again he wasn’t specific about which part — that SpaceX has “a ways to go” before it can be entrusted launching with high-value U.S. national security missions.

Air Force officials in charge of the certification review wouldn’t necessarily disagree — December is still more than three months away, after all. But they’d probably appreciate if the kibitzers on both sides — SpaceX has expressed impatience with the process — would stand back and let them do their job.