Editorial | Open Season on SpaceX

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SpaceX’s congressional detractors have taken the offensive in the wake of the June 28 failure of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Several House members wrote NASA and the U.S. Air Force in July to question whether the two organizations — both important SpaceX customers — would apply sufficient rigor in assessing the failure and the company’s corrective action plans. In August, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) called out NASA for allegedly being tougher on Orbital ATK following the failure of that company’s Antares rocket, also on a space station resupply mission, than on SpaceX. Finally, two U.S. senators in September asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to review NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program in light of both accidents.

It’s no coincidence that most of these lawmakers are from states that host SpaceX’s industrial competitors, including archrival United Launch Alliance and its corporate parents, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Aside from their interest in ULA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin do work for NASA that competes for dollars with programs in which SpaceX is involved.

NASA has in fact taken different approaches to reviewing the company-led Falcon 9 and Antares failure investigations, and the agency’s explanation of why is not terribly convincing — it likely won’t do much to counter perceptions of favoritism toward SpaceX. For its part, SpaceX is hardly defenseless — it plays the Washington political game as aggressively as anyone, and its founder, Elon Musk, has crossed the line on occasion, particularly with his unsubstantiated accusations of malfeasance on the part of Air Force officials.

But one need not be a fan of SpaceX to see its positive impact on the U.S. government space enterprise as a whole, primarily by introducing much-needed competition in the launch services arena. Between that and its roles in NASA’s space station commercial resupply and crew taxi programs, SpaceX is forcing the big primes to cut costs and innovate, to the government’s benefit. SpaceX also has made the United States relevant again in the commercial launch business, to the benefit of the satellite telecommunications sector. This, too, helps the government, which relies heavily on commercial satellite bandwidth, especially when fighting wars. Finally, the Commercial Resupply Services program in general has opened up avenues to space that previously were unavailable. A whole new generation of entrepreneurial startups like Planet Labs and Spire have been able to reach space by piggybacking on CRS missions.

While on some level it is unsurprising that certain members of Congress seem blind to the benefits of having SpaceX in the game and treat the company like an interloper rather than a force for innovation, it is nonetheless disappointing.