Opinion: SpaceX ‘routinely’ fails to launch, imposes media blackout causing firestorm
SpaceX failed for a tenth time to get the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket off of the launch pad at SLC-40 on the evening of Saturday June 21. Nothing unusual about that, point of fact SpaceX has had little luck launching Orbcomm satellites accurately or on a regular basis for that matter. What was unusual (at least for some) was the lengths, inaccurate statements and sad historical record surrounding the media blackout imposed by the company during this most recent attempt.
Don’t allow TrollSpace to dissuade you (TrollSpace refers to those who attack the messenger rather than address the problem), not hosting a webcast, not having any company representatives on hand to speak to the media and abandoning the media altogether – is not “routine.” Yet that’s precisely what SpaceX did. The excuse offered by the company would be laughable if not for the fact it was so insulting and that the company has strongly asserted its desire to fly national defense payloads.
Media arrived as instructed outside Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to find that SpaceX had recalled the lone public relations practitioner that had been available (SpaceX has a hard time keeping PR representatives, no fewer than four of them have joined and then left the Hawthorne, California-based firm since 2010) to California. In essence SpaceX abandoned the media to the 45th Space Wing, a fact lamented by one USAF representative as: “A complete mess.”
The situation with how SpaceX views and treats the media has seen ups and downs over the years and suggests the company has a dim view of the press. Issues can be traced back to the first Falcon 9 flight from Cape Canaveral in 2010.
SpaceX issued no statement after the June 21 scrub, causing some to compare it to a prior F9 v1.1 launch where the media was forced to find out the next launch attempt through the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Thankfully in the case of this flight, the launch’s customer, Orbcomm, did not suffer from SpaceX’s failings and posted updates. Sadly, a helpful hand to fill in the void left by SpaceX has not always been available.
During the lead up to the COTS-1 mission, CBS correspondent Bill Harwood corrected the attempt by SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell to assert her company had done a good job with media relations, countering that it took “hours and hours and hours” after the mission to find out even basic things about what had taken place. Put simply, he told the company’s COO and President that her company had not done a good job with concern to the press and he was absolutely correct. This exchange took place in late 2010. More recently SpaceX issued a series of excuses as to why it was not allowing remote cameras to be set up for the launch of CASSIOPE. These assertions failed to pass the smell test and set the stage for what took place today.
With what was, in essence, a media blackout imposed by SpaceX, something that, according to Justin Ray at SpaceFlight Now had not taken place since the Cold War, it was hoped that the lack of any information released by the company was the fault of an emergency or something that was simply unavoidable. The excuse issued by SpaceX stated that broadcasting the launches had become too routine, and that the full webcast is no longer appropriate. How about any webcast whatsoever the length or any information at all for that matter?
This bizarre comment depicts a corporate philosophy so divorced from reality as to cause serious concerns about other statements the company makes. First off, showing the launches is not only “appropriate” – it’s necessary if a company actually desires to be viewed as transparent.
Secondly, if SpaceX didn’t want to show a full webcast, that’s fine, do what ULA does and show just the launch itself. However, the disingenuous nature of this statement conveniently fails to mention that the company had no media-relations presence on the June 21 launch attempt whatsoever. Nothing.
Just the day prior it was situation normal, media representative on hand, remote cameras set up, press kits issued, webcast held and more. So what changed in a day?
If SpaceX wants to understand the meaning of the word “routine” – they should sit down with someone who actually launches on a routine basis because that word doesn’t describe them. The only thing SpaceX does routinely – is scrub. If you don’t think so – there’s a Falcon 9 sitting at SLC-40 that contradicts your opinion. If SpaceX has any sense of integrity they will issue an apology for making such a ludicrous statement following such a poor decision.
Despite the fervent wishes of some “cheerleaders” – SpaceX has only been able to launch the Falcon 9 rocket at the rate of 1.8 times a year. Those that follow the Cult of Personality surrounding the company would gerrymander that to include just the past year, six months or on the fourth equinox, under a full Moon when the stars are under a certain alignment. Sorry, since they first launched the Falcon 9 in 2010 – SpaceX has only been able to launch nine times.
So, the company can’t even launch on average twice a year – so what? Well, SpaceX has pushed, prodded, demanded and sued to be allowed to compete under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The company’s CEO and Founder, Elon Musk, testified that his company could carry out all missions for the U.S. Air Force and “then some.” How accurate is this statement? When reviewed by the numbers – it’s completely inaccurate.
According to Musk’s assertion, his company should be able to handle an average of 9-10 DoD missions, plus an additional 4 for NASA as well as 5 commercial missions. That puts their manifest at around 18 launches annually. This is twice what the company has been able to accomplish in the past five years. Even if we creatively adapt the flight record to the whims of SpaceX supporters and only looked at the past year, SpaceX has only launched five times – leaving SpaceX 13 missions short of Musk’s assertions. It can safely be argued Musk’s statement is inaccurate.
SpaceX is pummeled in terms of the amount of launches conducted annually by companies such as ULA, ILS and ArianeSpace. In the case of ULA, the company flies on average six times more than SpaceX – but always has representatives on hand and webcasts the launches – even classified DoD missions. If anyone should be imposing media blackouts on the scale seen on June 21 due to the “routine” nature of how often they fly? – it should be ULA. Moreover, the use of the word “routine” runs in direct conflict to many of the company’s prior comments.
SpaceX has stated that a lot of what it is doing is “new”, “untried” and “innovative.” Therefore, the fact the company insinuated it was due to how routine the mission was – is insulting at best. Sorry, you can’t have it both ways. Either you’re daring and innovative and trying new things – or it’s routine.
To be unable to come close to other launch service providers numbers and then issue such statements is nothing short of embarrassing. There was however a positive side to this debacle – it served the SpaceX fan base a dose of cold water.
SpaceX enthusiasts have long derided, attacked and posted libelous statements about anyone daring to point out these issues, attacking anyone who points out that, “the emperor has no clothes.”
During a prior launch I raised the question about why SpaceX was restricting remote camera access. One “cheerleader” asked me: “What are you hoping to get out of it?” As shocking as it might seem? I just wanted to be able to do my job. The bad thing about those types of questions – is they’re the ones that sting the most when thrown back at you.
What is SpaceX hoping to achieve by suing the U.S. Air Force? What do they think will happen after proclaiming they can meet DoD’s launch rate requirements – only to fail to do so? What do they hope to gain by imposing a media blackout? How will SpaceX fans respond?
On that last one – the answer was swift, poignant and let SpaceX know, in no uncertain terms, how poorly looked upon their decision was. Comments about the “invisible launch” #FalconNein and #SocialMedia(expletive)Storm – highlighted a fan base waking up from their Kool-Aid induced slumber. The warnings issued by journalists had finally been given a form.
Trolls were hard pressed to offer a rational excuse, falling back on: “They’re a private company and it’s their right…” True. However, if SpaceX wants the “good” that comes from the funding received from flying DoD missions – then SpaceX is going to have to behave like an actual aerospace firm run by professionals. Self-induced media blackouts, abandoning your responsibilities and dumping everything into the lap of the U.S. Air Force and fleeing to California – doesn’t cut it.
SpaceX is a private company and they have every right to behave as unprofessionally as they like. However, they are also a company that wants to compete with the largest U.S. launch service provider and tonight’s antics told even their most ardent fan that they still have a ways to go.
Imposing a media blackout and stating it was caused due to how “routinely” SpaceX launches? Probably would have been better punctuated by an actual launch instead of the tenth scrub on a mission that has been delayed by almost a year.
Moreover, it reminds long-term space followers of another organization and the tragedies that this cultural behavior caused. More on that at the close.
ULA currently holds the monopoly on DoD contracts. They carry the most sensitive, classified national security missions to orbit and they stream video of these events despite the nature of these launches. SpaceX has offered up a variety of excuses for their thin-skinned and recalcitrant nature. However, most would agree attempting to assert that a handful of communications satellites should be treated more secretively than a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office – is not a statement to be taken seriously.
What does this situation really mean? For this writer, it is about transparency, something SpaceX appears to have an adversity to. Sadly, I have seen what this culture can accomplish twice before – it led to 14 people being killed. NASA has paid a very high price due to a lack of communication and a factual assessment of the status on the ground. SpaceX is still new, they apparently have to be dealt similar blows before they understand. But can the U.S. space program afford another disaster?
SpaceX has stated it can handle all of the USAF’s payloads. Its own flight record plainly shows this is not true. The company has stated that it decided to not host any media and public relations because its launches have become too “routine.” The company’s own record of accomplishments and statements show that this too is false. While this might seem like a minor issue – it has larger implications.
SpaceX has been tapped to fly astronauts to the International Space Station and, as noted it wants DoD contracts. It might be best if they not be allowed to do either. Why? It’s about safety and security. The safety of U.S. astronauts and the security of the United States. If SpaceX is willing to state it can handle all USAF payloads, when it in fact has shown it cannot match that rate of launch required to do this. It also has stated that it is trying daring and innovative things – and then claims that it’s launches are “routine.” Which is it? What statements issued by the company are to be believed? Customers and the public shouldn’t have to “parse” – period.
During the June 20 scrub, this website erroneously posted that the launch window closed at 7:06 p.m. EDT. It was noticed by a reader and SpaceFlight Insider amended the article and issued a statement at the bottom acknowledging that it had originally contained content which was factually inaccurate. Why? It’s about integrity, honesty and accuracy and it was the ethical thing to do. SpaceX would have far more credibility at this point if they just said that they wanted nothing to do with the media and therefore opted to abandon their responsibility. Rather, they posted something so ridiculous that it accomplished nothing other than to add insult to injury and it called into question how seriously anything the company says should be taken.
In the end it comes down to two simple words, ones which for some reason have to be repeated: Integrity and ethics. If your company cannot carry out the rate of launch required to handle a vital contract – you don’t go on the record and say it can. Also, if your company’s rate of launch sees some years with no launches at all, others with perhaps two or three – you don’t characterize that as “routine.”
In the end, tonight’s events might only turn out to be inconsiderate and unprofessional. However, viewed through a cultural prism they could highlight a corporate mentality.
It is highly likely that TrollSpace will be out in force to counter this debate. They will talk about something else, to distract, they will insult to devalue the importance of these statements, they will stoop to anything at all – except addressing the points raised. I’m sure I will be painted as ignorant and biased and the fact I have been dealing with SpaceX’s issues for as long as they’ve been launching the Falcon 9 will be downplayed as much as possible.
I’ve seen SpaceX gain and lose PR representatives and have actually been at most of the events that I (strangely) never see any of the individuals who behave in the fashion detailed above attend. It’s not bias I’m speaking out of – it’s experience. I have penned and approved articles that have touted SpaceX’s successes – but the non-events of June 21 need to be called what they were – a disgrace. One which the company has so far lacked the integrity to own up to.
SpaceX will continue to be indignant about not receiving certain contracts, failing to realize that what matters isn’t what you say you will do – but what you actually accomplish. In terms of yesterday’s fiasco, it also matters how comfortable you are putting it out for the public to see. It’s obvious to everyone now – that SpaceX is terrified of transparency. In reality the only thing SpaceX accomplished was to fail to launch yet again – while talking about how “routinely” they launch. Talk is cheap – but silence speaks volumes.
There are a lot of words to sum up what SpaceX did on June 21, inappropriate, unprofessional, immature, amateurish and inconsiderate. The one word this author would not use to describe this “mess” – was surprising. SpaceX is the current golden child of space. However, these actions point to a deep-seated insecurity – one which likely has a root cause. If their offerings are as terrific as what they say, it’s doubtful they’d have any problem with hosting a webcast and they should be launching far more than less than twice a year. But they aren’t.
Fads are great, but in the long run, reliable access to orbit, conducted in an open manner – is far more valuable than the “new shiny” on the block.
I’ve covered more than 50 NASA, ULA, SpaceX and Orbital launches, flown with the astronauts in the Shuttle Training Aircraft as they worked to close out the shuttle era. I’ve entered the clean rooms and seen spacecraft and rovers prepared to be sent to other worlds. I know that no launch is “routine.” The fact SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 is still stuck at SLC-40 – says that more eloquently than anything I could ever write. Hopefully SpaceX has gotten the message and has gained something it needs even more than that EELV contract – humility. In the end though, perhaps it’s SpaceX’s fans who have caused this problem. Telling the company what it wants to hear, how great they are – is how we got where we are in the first place. What they require at this point is to be told what they need to hear and that is it is past time to drop the arrogance. You don’t treat those charged with telling your story in this manner and you don’t treat those who support you as if they are something to be cast aside. Today’s SpaceX can easily be tomorrow’s Constellation Program and if you keep behaving in this manner – it might be best if you followed that program’s path…
This editorial has been edited as of June 27 at 11:38 p.m. EDT with the correct title for Gwynne Shotwell.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group
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, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.