WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is suing Herndon, Va.-based Valador Inc. and its vice president, Joe Fragola, for making what SpaceX says were defamatory allegations about the safety and reliability of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
At the heart of the lawsuit is a June 8 email Fragola allegedly sent to NASA’s chief of safety and mission assurance, Bryan D. O’Connor, saying he was trying to verify a rumor that the Falcon 9’s first stage experienced a significant anomaly during its December launch of the Dragon space capsule. The suit was filed June 14 in Virginia’s Fairfax County Circuit Court.
“I have just heard a rumor, and I am trying now to check its veracity, that the Falcon 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.”
SpaceX denies there were any such problems on the flight, the second of the medium-lift Falcon 9. “First, there was no ‘double-engine’ failure (nor even a single engine failure),” SpaceX says in its complaint. “As planned, two of the nine first-stage engines shut down automatically ten seconds before the first stage shut down.
“Second, the first stage did not ‘blow up’ after separation from the second stage and spacecraft. The launch was broadcast by a camera on the Dragon spacecraft, which vividly showed the separation of the first stage — and no explosion occurred. Furthermore, the first stage was, at all times, tracked by ground telemetry including by NASA. No systems observed any “explosion” of the first stage. As an ‘expert,’ Fragola should have known the notion of the first stage ‘blowing up’ was abjectly untrue.”
O’Connor did not respond to a request for comment. Fragola, reached June 16 at Valador’s Rockville Centre, New York, office, declined to comment, saying he had been advised not to talk about the case.
SpaceX also declined to discuss the case. “It’s still in the hands of counsel and we have no comment,” SpaceX spokesman Bobby Block said June 17.
Fragola is a safety expert and a core member of the NASA Exploration Systems Architecture Study team that in 2005 picked the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets the agency then set out to build under the now-defunct Constellation program. In December 2009, Fragola testified before the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee about ensuring safety in human spaceflight.
In its complaint, SpaceX says Fragola sought a consulting contract worth up to $1 million, claiming the company needed his independent analysis of the Falcon 9 “to bolster its reputation with NASA based on what he called an unfair ‘perception’ about SpaceX.”
“SpaceX subsequently learned that Fragola — within the scope of his employment at Valador, and using his email account at Valador — has been contacting officials in the United States Government to make disparaging remarks about SpaceX, which have created the very ‘perception’ that he claimed SpaceX needed his help to rectify,” SpaceX’s claim states.
SpaceX also says that if anything went wrong during the flight, NASA would have known. “NASA officials were present with SpaceX controllers in the control center during the flight, and thus saw in real time all of the telemetry information SpaceX controllers saw,” the complaint states. “SpaceX then provided extensive post-flight debriefings to NASA, including telemetry analysis. If any of the foregoing events claimed by Fragola had occurred, then NASA would have known as soon as SpaceX did.”
Asked whether the Falcon 9 experienced any type of first-stage anomaly in its last outing, Block said: “Any observance noted had no impact on this or future mission success.”
SpaceX, which holds a $1.6 billion contract to deliver supplies to the international space station using Falcon 9 and Dragon, is seeking at least $1 million in damages plus legal fees and is demanding that a jury hear the case.
SpaceX’s attorney in the suit, Douglas Lobel with the Cooley law firm of Reston, Va., did not respond to a request for comment.