NASA Covers for SpaceX
Video footage of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space capsule exploding on the ground during an April 20 test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was leaked online by the next day. Yet SpaceX and NASA are unacceptably dragging their feet in explaining this taxpayer-financed fiasco in the American space program and thus continued SpaceX’s worrisome undue influence on government.
SpaceX’s April 20 press release with its “anomaly” euphemism was immediately contradicted by images provided by a photographer from a local Florida publication covering a surfing festival on a beach near Cape Canaveral. In the telling photos, toxic reddish smoke clouds billow upwards from the space center. The accident is a poor omen for the Crew Dragon, in which NASA wants to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
Such visual evidence helped prompt an April 24 editorial from the Orlando Sentinel, a Florida newspaper that often covers the space program in the region. “‘Anomaly’ is a vague industry buzzword that tells the public zilch about what happened to a program that the federal government is spending billions on,” the editorial criticized. “There’s been no press conference. No opportunity to ask questions of company executives. No detailed news releases. No photos or video of the damage.”
The next day NASA repeated the “anomaly” description in a lackluster public panel that simply rehashed already public information. Rather than answer various lingering questions surrounding the incident, NASA since then has been uncharacteristically quiet, a silence SpaceX mirrored for 13 days until May 2. Only then did an anticlimactic announcement finally publicly confirm the Crew Dragon’s explosion during a test of the SuperDraco rocket abort system, but rejected any suggestion of rocket malfunction and/or SpaceX fault.
Therefore, the explosion remains largely shrouded in mystery, devoid of crucial information, a status understandable from the perspective of a private firm like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but more troubling for the American people. As the Orlando Sentinel noted, the “secretive aspects of Elon Musk’s ventures is fine when he’s spending his own money” but not in nonmilitary, nonconfidential government programs like SpaceX’s NASA mission. The Atlantic concurred that a “lack of transparency, a frequent hallmark of private technology companies, won’t work here.”
The Atlantic contrasted that “SpaceX should expect to be more transparent about its work for NASA, as the “astronaut capsule is a taxpayer-funded effort” and the Sentinel concluded that “NASA shouldn’t enable such secrecy.” Yet leaks have been the origin of almost all information about the Crew Dragon blowup, as confirmed by a leaked internal NASA memorandum, and NASA has only acted to quell such information flows in the future. NASA not so subtly informed Cape Canaveral employees that they risked termination for violating a supposedly longstanding policy against unauthorized dissemination of images from operations.
NASA appears to be acting more like Musk’s public-relations department, not a taxpayer-funded government agency, and not for the first time. In 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded shortly after launch, obliterating more than two tons of provisions heading for the ISS. The normally fast-acting NASA reacted with unexpected lethargy, raising suspicions by individuals like Representative Lamar Smith of favoritism towards SpaceX. Only in 2018, three years after the incident and long after public outcry had faded, did NASA quietly release the summary of a report that found SpaceX responsible for the malfunction.
SpaceX also has cultivated defenders on Capitol Hill like House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith, who received $20,400 in SpaceX campaign contributions in 2018 alone. Following a United States Air Force decision to exclude SpaceX from the first phase of its Launch Service Agreement (LSA), Adam Smith wrote on March 28 to the Secretary of the Air Force. Along with Senator Dianne Feinstein, he urged investigations into the LSA procurement process that have jeopardized the program’s progress with delays. Not coincidentally, Feinstein, a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence that oversees various military agencies, is the only legislator in 2018 to receive more SpaceX contributions ($26,600) than Adam Smith.
SpaceX exhibited similar petulance at the expense of America’s taxpayer-supported space program earlier this year when SpaceX failed to win a contract for launching a satellite to explore asteroids around Jupiter. SpaceX initiated a government review process of the procurement decision that has halted work on this time-sensitive mission with limited launch windows. Correspondingly the Foundation for Economic Education has concluded that Musk has an “ongoing attempt to be the biggest recipient of corporate cronyism in American history.”
More transparency over the Crew Dragon snafu and future SpaceX government contracts should signal an end such cronyism. “No one expects a full-blown explanation a week after the fact. But the public deserves some more openness,” the Atlantic observed. The American people have a right to know whether the Crew Dragon suffered a simple mishap or has more serious design flaws and to what extent SpaceX will have to go back to the drawing board.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies, and has authored over 450 articles in print and online at outlets like the Algemeiner, American Spectator, American Thinker, Breitbart, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, Jihad Watch, and the Washington Times.