Spaceflight Insider

OPINION: Is there inconsistency in how NASA treats its private partners?

CRS-7 Orb-3 accidents NASA images

As noted in a recent blog post appearing on Parabolic Arc, NASA’s treatment of SpaceX’s CRS-7 and Orbital Science’s Orb-3 accidents has been different and the reasons provided as to why this is the case – have not been entirely convincing. Image Credit: NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A recent post appearing on the blog Parabolic Arc noted NASA will not be releasing a public report on the findings of the SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-7 explosion that resulted in the loss of the launch vehicle, the Dragon spacecraft, and the roughly $118 million in supplies and hardware the spacecraft was carrying. The post also notes that the Orb-3 accident was handled differently by NASA, but were the two accidents so distinct as to warrant two totally dissimilar approaches?

The premise of the Parabolic Arc report was somewhat inaccurate. NASA didn’t refuse to issue a public report; the truth is, no public report was ever produced. NASA officials noted on Wednesday, July 19, that, as the agency was not required to create such a report, one was not generated.

When asked about the discrepancy between the two incidents, NASA officials noted that the Orb-3 failure had occurred on a NASA launch pad (at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad-0A – which is managed by Virginia Space, not NASA). Whereas the Falcon 9 CRS-7 mission had launched from SpaceX’s own pad (SLC-40, which is not their pad it was leased to them by the U.S. Air Force) on a commercial flight licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Therefore, NASA was not required to produce a report on the CRS-7 accident. However, Orb-3 was also licensed by the FAA, making this distinction tenuous.

Obama tours Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40 photo credit Bill Ingalls NASA

SpaceX has enjoyed a positive working relationship with NASA, but is this partnership preferential? Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

The problem submitted by SpaceX as the root cause of the CRS-7 accident was a failed strut in the rocket’s second stage. SpaceX stated that it had fixed the problem and, for all intents and purposes, the matter was dropped.

Fast forward 14 months and another Falcon 9, with the $185 million Amos-6 spacecraft, exploded while just sitting on the pad, taking the rocket, its payload, and some of the ground support facilities at Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 with it. Since the Amos-6 accident, SpaceX has moved its operations to Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A, under the 20-year lease with NASA that SpaceX entered into in April of 2014.

With limited information made available to the public, conspiracy theories, including those involving it being struck by a drone and snipers hired by SpaceX’s competition, sprung up in articles and on comment boards on sites such as and elsewhere regarding the cause of the Amos-6 explosion. This demonstrated the need for a transparent accounting of accidents involving public-private efforts such as NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract.

“There’s a lot that goes into the decision,” NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications, Bob Jacobs told SpaceFlight Insider. “Such as: what’s in the pipeline on the next vehicle, will that vehicle ever be used again and how can the data be applied to system improvements, and do we have a requirement to produce a report?”

The handling of past in-flight anomalies casts another wrinkle into the question of disparate treatment. When the Orbiting Carbon Observatory spacecraft was lost on Feb. 24, 2009, an executive summary of the accident was issued. When NASA’s GLORY mission met a similar fate on March 4, 2011, an executive summary was issued. Both of these launches did not take place on NASA pads, apparently contradicting one of the agency’s rationales behind the lack of an executive summary as being due to the location/operator of the launch site.

Finally, Orb-3 also had an executive summary produced and issued by NASA. In fact, a review of in-flight anomalies taking place in the past decade shows that every major mission that encountered an in-flight anomaly had a public report issued by NASA – except CRS-7 (two minor payloads, NanoSail-D and PRESat, that were launched in this time frame were both lost on a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket, with no executive summaries released).

A review of mission elements that may set CRS-7 apart might help highlight why this accident holds such a unique position.

If the cost of the payload is the issue, this presents a problem. The payload for Orb-3 has been estimated at costing $51 million. CRS-7’s payload, by comparison, cost approximately $118 million more than twice as much as that lost on Orb-3. Moreover, CRS-7’s payload contained some critical flight hardware, including the first International Docking Adapter (IDA-1), components for extra-vehicular activity (EVA) spacesuits, and cargo for NASA’s Russian, European, Canadian, and Japanese partners on the ISS. Orb-3’s payload consisted predominantly of experiments, nanosatellites, and technology demonstrators. In short, the losses encountered due to the CRS-7 mishap were more expensive and the payload more critical to ISS operations than that lost on Orb-3.

However, if it’s the amount of cargo in question, then this also presents issues in terms of the lack of apparent differences:

Orb-3 – Total Cargo: 4,883 lb (2,215 kg)

CRS-7 – Total Cargo: 4,116 lb (1,867 kg)

When pressed, another reason given as to the lack of a public report was that the version of the Falcon 9 lost is no longer used for CRS flights. NASA’s assertion there was no point in conducting a review of CRS-7 because the Falcon 9 was poised for an upgrade, also falls flat as it was announced less than a month after the Orb-3 mishap that Antares would also be upgraded from the Antares 100 to the Antares 200. The component that was deemed the cause of the Orb-3 accident – Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AJ26-62 rocket engine (a former Soviet rocket engine, the NK-33) would be phased out due to concerns with aging and corrosion in the 40-year-old engines. Orbital Sciences opted to go with the new RD-181, as was reported by TASS in December of 2014.

International Docking Adapter 2 with NASA's Kennedy Space Center Director Robert D. Cabana photo credit NASA

The CRS-7 payload was more expensive and carried components far more critical to station operations than was lost on Orb-3. Photo Credit: NASA

As noted above, NASA issued a full report on the Orb-3 accident as well as photos on the one-year anniversary of the accident; therefore, by not doing the same for CRS-7, as Parabolic Arc’s Doug Messier contends, it at least lends the appearance of a double standard – two accidents, but only one having a report issued.

When the one-year anniversary of the CRS-7 mishap took place, the agency did not issue an executive summary nor did they issue any images of the CRS-7 accident as they did with Orb-3. NASA officials stated the Falcon 9 was too high in altitude for similar imagery to be taken. However, many photos of the CRS-7 accident were taken by amateur photographers with far less powerful camera equipment than what is available to the U.S. space agency.

As was reported by the Orlando Sentinel, the inspector general did mark the one-year anniversary of the CRS-7 mishap; the article notes: “In the report, the inspector general admonished NASA for not being more specific about risks associated with resupply launches, meaning NASA management cannot properly evaluate the risks.”

While the risks of an uncrewed cargo flight might seem minimal, in terms of the future of the Falcon 9, this is not the case as will be highlighted later in this editorial. Marco Santana, the author of the Orlando Sentinel article, noted how the IG had stated that the methodology used had “…deviated from existing procedures for evaluating launch risks.”

Despite these findings, NASA’s assertions that it is not required to produce a report on the accident is 100 percent accurate. Per the OIG Report on the CRS-7 Failure:

5.2 Mishap Investigation and Corrective Action for Mishaps Occurring Post Launch and Prior to Integrated Operations

a) An Initial Investigation by the Contractor is required for all mishaps which have been reported to NASA. NASA reserves discretionary authority to investigate mishaps which involve NASA personnel or resources regardless of location. The Contractor has the discretion to perform any collateral investigations. However, investigations implemented by NASA will take priority with regard to access to evidence, data and witnesses. The proceedings of NASA investigations will remain confidential. The Contractor will have an opportunity to comment on the investigation report in accordance with NASA protocols.

In order to keep things as impartial as possible, a report should have been issued for CRS-7 as well; this would appear to be another deviation “from existing procedures”.

However, one element not noted in the Parabolic Arc post or in the OIG’s Report that perhaps should be, could be the most important thing to compare the two accidents by. There are no plans to crew-rate the Antares rocket. The same cannot be said for the Falcon 9. If NASA astronauts are to fly to the International Space Station atop a Falcon 9, one would think the space agency would want to conduct their own comprehensive review of the root cause of any and all anomalies the rocket encounters – and to present their findings to the public.

Given the cost and critical nature of the CRS-7 payload and the fact the Falcon 9 will eventually be used to fly astronauts – means this accident warranted a complete, thorough, and transparent investigation even more so than did Orb-3.

SpaceX Falcon 9 with NASA's CRS-8 mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida. Photo Credit Carleton Bailie SpaceFlight Insider

Perhaps the most important point to consider is that Antares will never carry astronauts and the Falcon 9 could do so as soon as next year (2018). Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

“NASA has every intention of putting together a final report, although one is not required. As stated many times when asked, the agency did a rigorous review of the data. Both contract service providers have different launch vehicles now and everyone is focused on the safe execution of future missions. We will continue to provide assistance and analysis where appropriate, and will share such information accordingly,” Jacobs told SpaceFlight Insider on Thursday, July 20.

A full report on the CRS-7 accident could help to deflate the argument of real or perceived preferential treatment. Unfortunately, the report on the Orb-3 accident was issued about a year after the accident, in October 2015. It has been more than two years since the loss of CRS-7 and no public report by NASA has been issued and the agency has stated that it both does and does not intend to issue a final report.

SpaceX’s CEO and Founder, Elon Musk, has railed against his company being excluded from lucrative Department of Defense contracts and, indeed, one of the NewSpace movement’s chief complaints, as a whole, is that they have not been treated the same as established competitors have been. However, this situation does not appear to be a problem with SpaceX, nor is it an issue with the NewSpace community – it is a failing of NASA’s culture.

A review of the facts involved with this situation suggests a lack of consistent, uniform practices. The fact every major mission to encounter an in-flight anomaly in the past decade had a public report compiled and issued by NASA, with only CRS-7 standing apart, and that NASA had placed the onus of the CRS-7 accident investigation on the FAA, but did not do the same for Orb-3, while within NASA’s rights, does not paint the agency in a favorable light.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Director, former shuttle astronaut Robert Cabana, who, according to Florida Today, has had his own issues with impartiality, has described KSC as a “multi-user spaceport” – a mantra repeatedly used by the agency.

Companies seeking to sign up under this concept should expect a uniform method of practices in terms of accident investigations. Inconsistent behavior carried out by NASA only serves to undermine this laudable goal and validate many of the arguments raised in the Parabolic Arc post.

NASA noted its CRS missions are different than the agency’s prior efforts as they are carried out under the “commercial” banner, providing more flexibility to how the agency can deal with these service providers. NASA stated that, while they paid for these services, they did not manage the flights. However, this too isn’t entirely accurate. NASA did not pay for these flights, the U.S. taxpayers did. As such, a full accounting of the CRS-7 accident should have been generated by NASA and its findings publicly released by the agency who purchased it on their behalf – as all other major NASA missions that encountered in-flight anomalies since the start of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract in 2006.

In closing, NASA might be well within its rights to do a thing – but that doesn’t make that thing right.


The views expressed in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily, reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

A couple of points:

The IG report does contain a brief description of NASA’s findings. The agency did not identify the strut as the probable cause. It identified several credible causes, including material defects found in other struts that were tested but also things like improper installation, manufacturing damage and improper material selection.

The summary raises more questions than it answered. Hence the desire for a public summary like with Orb-3.

Concerns over how SpaceX operated prompted a letter from Bolden and Gerstenmaier in Feb 2016 — after NASA had cleared F9 to launch Jason-3 in January — demanding changes in how they did things.

Last year NASA PAO assured me for months that a final report and public summary would be issued. in December, they had estimated this summer. When I inquired again they said they were deferring all action on these matters. They also told me for the first time they no obligation to release the results.

I do also find it important for NASA to produce a report on these accidents regardless of which company was involved. In a perfect world this would be great but my guess is that such a report would point to the fault being in large part due to experimental use of materials, construction techniques and installation procedures. That is probably why NASA is treating these failures differently. If there’s a backlash against this way of working we will be here in 50 years lamenting how we remain stuck in LEO with expensive single use rockets as our only means of reaching orbit.. In my view SpaceX has been delivering on their promises, even if they haven’t managed to keep their timeframes. Then again, which experimental project ever keeps their timeframes? Such expectations go against the very nature of these endeavours. SpaceX have provided NASA with invaluable data that could not have been acquired otherwise and are thus by far the more valuable private company, not to mention savings achieved due to lower cost launches. Assuming they saved NASA 40 million per launch, that would more or less make up for the failures. I am no expert but I would guess that the extra data from re-entry is probably worth billions in itself.

“The agency did not identify the strut as the probable cause.”

This is false. The OIG report clearly says the other probable causes it found are issues that could have caused the strut failure, and says that SpaceX took actions to correct those other causes, as well.

The report in no way, shape, or form says or implies that a strut failure was not the cause of the CRS-7 incident.

Unless I’ve completely misunderstood the way these departments work in the USA, the taxpayer already has the cheap ride they paid for. The Air Force/DOD business is also played for with government money and hence taxpayer money. So if SpaceX offers to send a satellite for 90 million instead of 120 million (or in some cases a lot more), taxpayer money is saved. I believe ULA mentioned something about being unable to compete against SpaceX in terms price for some of these launches. Private launches that SpaceX now dominates also benefit the country in general as they bring this lucrative business to the USA, it’s not like ULA was dominating before SpaceX came along, it was mostly Russian and European launches that occupied this market.

As an ISS partner, Russia has provided emergency escape services and transportation services to and from the ISS. Russia was selling the extra seats to space tourists until NASA bought the extra seats after the space shuttle was retired. Now they have the only ride in town and charge what they can get away with. But, just like the ULA monopoly that is coming to an end.

There may have been a misunderstanding here in my use of the words cheap ride, suggesting that I meant crewed flights. I am fully aware that cargo and human transportation is not the same thing in spaceflight, or in any other means of transportation for that matter. However, I do not agree with your comment suggesting SpaceX has done something wrong in working on other projects. If this was the case, Boeing would have been ready to fly American astronauts by now, it is not and in fact their schedule is behind SpaceX. It still remains to be seen if both companies manage to keep these launch dates but your argument here has no basis other than to suggest SpaceX could have beaten all other competitors to providing human certified flights by years if they had focused solely on this service.

Here’s an explanation of my ‘tactics’ so that we don’t misunderstand each other in the future. It is true that SpaceX were hired to provide human certified space transportation and that there have been delays, there is however no reason to believe they haven’t done their best to achieve this. Unless there’s obvious proof that they used funds appropriated for the purpose of sending Americans to the ISS for other ventures there’s no need to deride them for working on such side projects regardless of what these may be.

As for your concern that I was putting words in your mouth, I think I was clear but maybe it should be explained. I said your argument suggests, not that you personally intended to say this. It was a logical follow-through that if as you said SpaceX should have focused on doing one thing, then they could have achieved it a lot faster, so if the competition are currently behind SpaceX then it is safe to assume that having focused on this work SpaceX would have been years ahead of the competition. If on the other hand no manner of extra focus could have made things move quicker, then the whole point is moot. Sorry if this wasn’t clear

Congress underfunded commercial crew program for several years, despite warnings that it will cause delay in availability of crew transport to ISS. Some delays were caused by technical issues, but those are not predictable.

Also, youy may not realise it, but companies involved have enough employees to work on multiple projects at the same time…

July 23, 2017

Hi All,
Thanks so much for your great comments! Sadly, we’ve had to ban someone because they opted to make a conversation about the treatment Orbital ATK & SpaceX received – be about Boeing & ULA (and carry out an ad hominem attack while doing so). Please review our Commenting Rules before posting.

Sincerely, Derek Richardson – Managing Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

If the person who was banned has done this repeatedly, I agree with the ban. What I think would be good, if this isn’t already the case, is to block such posts as suggested but at the same time send a notification about what was blocked and why. Possibly give 3 such notices before banning. If someone feels personally attacked, or that a post was untrue, they should reply with reason and evidence where possible. If someone is unable to display self control and ends up calling people names and generally insulting them as an argument without actually contributing to the discussion, then in my opinion banning them is perfectly acceptable.

“The taxpayer is waiting for that cheap ride they paid for.”

But the taxpayers (through congress) didn’t pay for it. They put it off over and over again so that SLS could be funded. Full funding didn’t start until recently. If you want to point fingers, point them at congress. They decided to underfund commercial crew and pay year after year for seats on Soyuz rather than grow our own capability.

As for all the other stuff you mentioned, do you expect SpaceX to sit on its thumbs waiting for funding like an old-space cost-plus contractor? SpaceX must stay agile or it will be overtaken. That’s why they spend money to develop new technologies and also take commercial payloads.

If your argument is that they should stop all R&D except crewed dragon I’d disagree. Disregarding the fact commercial crew was only recently fully funded, throwing more money and people at crewed dragon will not immediately improve progress. Only so many people can work on it at once and more engineers and machinists would end up stepping all over each other.

So you are saying that SX haven’t been working on sending astronauts to the ISS. If that is true, in your mind, then, neither Boeing nor Lockheed have been working on their Starliner and Orion capsules and SLS. So, tax dollars are being wasted and Congress should investigate why no capsules & infrastructure and launch vehicles are being built. Come on man!

Text of emails from NASA promising a public summary. I want this to be clear that NASA did not mention they could not release information due to contract stipulation about confidentiality last fall.

I think, concerning SLC-40, somebody doesn’t realize the difference between property and possession.

SpaceX possesses SLC-40. And that’s why the Nasa didn’t need that Report.

I think somebody else is missing the point: that $118 million worth of flight hardware and cargo that the American taxpayer and others paid for ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic and that the Falcon 9 is supposed to be entrusted with the lives of astronauts as early as next year. As the story says, there are other things that need to be considered here and some of us are more worried about crew safety than just allowing SpaceX to do whatever they want.

I’m not sure I agree with your points here either. There are plenty of experiments that can only be done on the ISS if I’m not mistaken. Unless we already have a station orbiting the Moon, there is no point talking about how the ISS is useless in comparison. I am also hard pressed to understand your objections to the potential benefits these new companies have brought for space exploration. Your comment about these being projects for the uber-rich seems unfounded considering their accomplishments. How would a 100-200 million dollar per launch price point be better than a 60 million? Even accounting for the failures I would guess they come out on top, never mind once all this technology matures. I am not saying SpaceX will be able to create a platform that will cost 500000 or less for a trip beyond LEO but how would a platform that costs billions per person be better for the average American? How has OldSpace (your words, not mine) benefited human space exploration beyond LEO in the past 30 years other than to do exactly the same things (and less) that were done 50 years ago and proved financially unsustainable? As I see it, the only way we can go beyond LEO with the ”old” process is to generate another cold war (with a potential military foothold), otherwise nobody is going to pay for it regardless of what they say.

I believe that Space X does not get paid in event of failure. They get paid only in proportion to extent each mission step is completed successfully. In the CRS-7’s case, they received zero dollars. Space X’s contract also has a mechanism to reimburse, to some extent, NASA for lost/damaged/destroy equipment most likely in the form of price discounts for the next launch. I trust this helps.

Yes, the mission is the whole point but what is this mission? To me it’s to enable a permanent presence beyond LEO and every other mission is in some way a subset of this goal. Whether that’s initially robotic (asteroid mining/orbital manufacturing/refuelling – so probably SEP/VASIMR propulsion not massive rockets for long term operation) or human (Lunar Orbital Stations, Mars and/or Lunar Base) doesn’t make a big difference in my opinion, although robotic is probably more suited for smaller budgets.

This mission shouldn’t be about spending 400 billion to plant a flag on Mars and bring back samples a few times even if achieving this would be monumental, so not Apollo Part 2. Mainly because similar results are to some extent enabled by automated/robotic missions at a much lower cost. That’s why the cost itself and launch frequency is so important, if NASA can’t find a way to maintain services beyond LEO indefinitely within the current budget then the mission will either never happen or will most likely end up the same way Apollo did.

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