Politics ramp up in SpaceX explosion investigation

Politics ramp up in SpaceX explosion investigation
A webcam image from NASA'S Kennedy Space Center in Florida shows SpaceX's launch site shortly after a Sept. 1 explosion. (NASA)

SpaceX's investigation into the mysterious explosion of its rocket last month is drawing political support — and branching out in unusual directions.

A bipartisan group of 24 members of Congress — many of whose interests align with those of SpaceX — have sent a letter to the heads of the Air Force, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration praising the agencies' roles in assisting or overseeing SpaceX's investigation into its September launch pad explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and a communications satellite.


That comes a week after 10 Republican House members, including a number of representatives whose districts host space operations by the company's competition, criticized SpaceX's role in leading the investigation.

In the latest letter, dated Sept. 30, the congressional members said they were "pleased that the FAA is maintaining a strong and prudent oversight role that appropriately draws upon private sector insight in ensuring a robust investigative process and safe return to flight for SpaceX."

The House members, led by Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), also supported NASA and the Air Force's roles in assisting the investigation, saying it is "consistent with long-standing accident investigation procedures."

"We are confident that current NASA and Air Force procedures will ensure that future U.S. government missions that utilize the Falcon 9, and any other launch vehicle system, will undergo appropriate flight worthiness evaluations prior to flight," the letter states.

NASA and the Air Force said they received the letter and are reviewing it. The FAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The letter sharply contrasts with — and at one point appears to rebuke — the letter sent last week by SpaceX critics.

Those critics, led by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), suggested instead that NASA or the Air Force should take charge "to ensure that proper investigative engineering rigor is applied and that the outcomes are sufficient to prevent NASA and military launch mishaps in the future."

"Accidents are unfortunate events and accident investigations should not be politicized," the letter led by Flores states. "We encourage you to to reject calls for your organizations to abandon established, well-considered and long-standing procedures."

Under federal law, SpaceX is allowed to conduct its own investigation. SpaceX, whose full name is Space Exploration Technologies Corp., and other companies lobbied successfully to extend the law last year. The FAA oversees such investigations.

Flores' congressional district includes McGregor, Texas, where SpaceX has a rocket development facility. Among the letter signers were several members of Congress who represent states where Hawthorne-based SpaceX has operations, including California.

Coffman's congressional district includes the headquarters of United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. that had long held a lucrative monopoly on national security launches until SpaceX was certified by the Air Force in 2015 to compete for these contracts.

Meanwhile, the explosion investigation veered off in an unexpected direction when the Washington Post reported last week that in an attempt to chase down all possible leads, a SpaceX employee asked for access to the roof of a nearby building leased by ULA after "SpaceX officials had come across something suspicious they wanted to check out."

Citing unnamed industry sources, the Washington Post said the encounter between the SpaceX employee and ULA officials was "cordial, not accusatory," and that the SpaceX worker had still images from a video showing an "odd shadow, then a white spot" on the roof of the ULA building. ULA ultimately denied the SpaceX employee access to the roof, instead calling the Air Force to come and inspect, according to the Washington Post.

In a statement, ULA said it "cooperated with the Air Force's 45th Space Wing and nothing associated with the SpaceX accident was found."


SpaceX said its accident investigation team "has an obligation to consider all possible causes of the anomaly," and that the firm would not comment on any specific potential cause until the investigation was complete.

"We have sought all available data to support the investigation in a timely manner following the anomaly, as expected for any responsible investigation," SpaceX said in a statement.

About two weeks ago, SpaceX said a preliminary review of the data suggested that a "large breach" took place in the helium system of the upper-stage liquid oxygen tank. The cause of the breach is still unknown.

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