Lawmakers Fret About SpaceX-led Failure Probe

October 5, 2016 – 11:49 pm

The June 28 explosion of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has amplified calls for the Defense Department to have assured access to space. Credit: NASA TV.WASHINGTON — A group of mostly Republican lawmakers, many from states with a United Launch Alliance presence, want to know how tough NASA and the U.S. Air Force are getting with SpaceX after a June 28 launch failure of the latter’s Falcon 9 rocket that destroyed a load of NASA cargo bound for the International Space Station.

Although the mission was one of a dozen SpaceX took on as part its Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA, the space agency legally had no oversight of the commercially procured launch, which was licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

As is typical with commercial launches, SpaceX is in charge of the mishap investigation, the initial results of which indicate that a faulty strut caused the rocket to disintegrate some 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Falcon 9, heavily booked with a mix of commercial missions, mostly for NASA and satellite operators, probably will not return to flight earlier than September, SpaceX founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk said in July.

SpaceX’s lead role in the investigation has left 17 U.S. representatives with “serious reservations” about “whether the investigation and engineering rigor applied will be sufficient to prevent future military launch mishaps.” So says a July 30 letter the group sent to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Air Force Secretary Deborah James.

The Falcon 9 recently was certified to launch Air Force missions, positioning SpaceX to compete in a market that Denver-based ULA has long had to itself. The first of the competitive launches, of a GPS 3 satellite, is slated for award this year.

The lawmakers wanted to know whether the accident would affect Falcon 9’s hard-won certification.

So far, it has not.

“At this time, the Falcon 9 Launch System remains certified and eligible to compete for future national security space launch missions, ” Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base in California, said in an Aug. 4 statement. However, the Air Force “has the authority to maintain certification or require some flight worthiness activities to be re-accomplished.”

More than half of the lawmakers who signed the letter hail from states where ULA or its business partners have a presence, including Colorado and Alabama. Only two were Democrats.


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