By the end of this year, the aerospace manufacturer SpaceX is planning to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) with a Falcon 9 booster. At the same time though, the private contractor has come under fire for possible shortcomings during its latest Falcon 9 launch, which likely cost the American taxpayer substantially. When coupled with other recent failures, the government’s response to the Zuma raises larger questions about its oversight of space travel.
By now, most agree that SpaceX’s Jan. 7th launch, codenamed “Zuma,” failed to reach orbit. Regardless of who is to blame for this failure, it sure looks like another $62 million Falcon 9 launch will have to be repeated, and its billion-dollar cargo replaced. It is odd, then, that the government has thus far expressed little interest in discovering why this failure occured.
SpaceX believes that there were no problems on its end. Its Chief Operating Officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said in a statement that “after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly.” While this may ultimately prove true, others are skeptical, and some Members of Congress have suggested that it may have occurred due to issues on SpaceX’s end.
The truth is that at this early date, no one can say with absolute certainty what went wrong. Investigations into space failures often take a year or more just to find a definite cause. Yet, instead of assuring the public that they are working to solve this case, government officials are strangely punting all the press questions to SpaceX. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of operations for the Joint Staff, said, “I’m done. We’re not going to be able to give you any more information.”
While allowances must surely be made for protecting classified information, there is a definite difference between being cautious and blindly careless. It is unusual for the Pentagon to offer no details whatsoever; not even providing a simple thumbs up or down on whether a mission was successful or if an investigation will soon occur.
SpaceX has continued to experience failures that far outpace its competitors, which should rightly raise questions about the impact of the government’s handling of past failures such as the Falcon 9’s costly 2015 and 2016 explosions.
The 2017 report of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory found multiple issues with the work of SpaceX, and deficiencies were even linked to the 2016 launchpad explosion. Did the government mandate structural company changes after the release of that report, or did it allow SpaceX’s forthcoming Falcon 9 launches to go on without delay?
Reportedly, SpaceX is still working on redesigning its rocket from a spectacular flare-up at Cape Canaveral in 2016. Due to this month’s Zuma mission, will it need to alter the Falcon 9 again, all at the taxpayers’ expense?
The American taxpayers that fund these large-scale endeavors have a right to expect answers to all of these questions and demand that Washington examine every detail and publicly release at least the basic facts.
Like any other costly failure, the string of recent losses on SpaceX crafts should receive a full measure of investigation to discern the root of the problem. If it turns out that SpaceX is indeed at fault again, then the administration needs to consider whether it’s time to put its use of the company on pause until it gets to the bottom of its quality control issues
If the blame lies elsewhere, then those changes need to be made. Either way, it is incumbent upon the Pentagon to take steps to put an end to these cyclical failures..
In the end, the space travel marketplace and the companies themselves will be better off for authorities having held them to a higher standard, and taxpayers will get to avoid paying for more unexplained failures.
Bill Wirtz is a freelance writer.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.