SpaceX Settles Lawsuit Against Safety Consultant

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WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has agreed to settle a $1 million defamation lawsuit against an aerospace safety consultant the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company accused in June of spreading a rumor that the Falcon 9 rocket experienced a major anomaly during its most recent flight.

SpaceX and Valador, Inc. — the safety consultant’s Herndon, Va.-based employer — said in a joint statement obtained Aug. 2 by Space News that both sides have agreed to terminate the six-week-old lawsuit. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

“Since SpaceX filed its lawsuit … the Parties have been working collaboratively to resolve the matter. Regarding the underlying facts, Dr. [Joseph] Fragola investigated a rumor regarding the performance of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle during its most recent launch. Through email communications with both NASA and SpaceX on June 8, 2011, Dr. Fragola confirmed that the rumor was false in that no Falcon 9 engines failed and the first stage did not explode,” SpaceX and Valador said in a joint statement. “There was independent NASA tracking and video of the flight, and subsequent debriefing with NASA, indicating no such failure, indicating no such failures or explosions.

“The Parties regret any misunderstanding or misinterpretation resulting either from the investigation of the rumor or from statements concerning the possible motives for that investigation,” the statement concludes. “The Parties have mutually agreed to resolve their differences and to terminate the lawsuit and any potential counterclaims over this matter.”

SpaceX filed its lawsuit June 14 in Virginia’s Fairfax County Circuit Court. The complaint named Fragola and Valador as defendants. Fragola is the company’s senior vice president.

According to the lawsuit, Fragola emailed NASA’s chief of safety and mission assurance, Bryan O’Connor, June 8 saying he was trying to verify a rumor that the Falcon 9’s first stage experienced a significant anomaly during its Dec. 8 launch of the Dragon space capsule.

“I have just heard a rumor, and I am trying now to check its veracity, that the Flacon 9 experienced a double engine failure in the first stage and that the entire stage blew up just after the first stage separated. I also heard that this information was being held from NASA until SpaceX can ‘verify’ it,” Fragola wrote O’Connor, according to court documents.

SpaceX, in its complaint, denied that there had been either an engine failure or an explosion. The company was seeking $1 million in damages.

Fragola, who is based in New York, makes his living as a safety expert. He was a member of the NASA Exploration Systems Architecture Study team that selected the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rocket concepts for the defunct Constellation Moon-return and Mars landing program.

SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion NASA contract to fly cargo to the international space station starting next year aboard the Falcon-launched Dragon capsule. SpaceX plans to launch its final cargo-delivery demonstration flight, part of a separate pact with NASA, on Nov. 30.