OPINION: Is there inconsistency in how NASA treats its private partners?
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.
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 NASASpaceFlight.com 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.
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.
“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, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.