U.S Representatives raise questions regarding NASA’s contracts with SpaceX
On July 16, U.S. Representatives Mike Coffman (R-CO), and Cory Gardner (R-CO), sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden expressing reservations over, what the letter refers to as an, “epidemic” of anomalies relating to launch vehicles and spacecraft SpaceX has produced as part of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo efforts. These partnerships are designed to ferry supplies and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The letter discusses issues that have occurred during launches or launch attempts of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as well as missions carried out by the Hawthorne, California-based firm’s Dragon spacecraft. According to Representative Coffman’s office, NASA has yet to provide details on the problems noted within the letter.
The primary issues that the two Colorado representatives have stated they are seeking answers to involve several helium leaks that the Falcon 9 has encountered which caused delays of the Commercial Resupply Services 3 (SpX-3) flight to the ISS and another which happened during one of the launch attempts for the Orbcomm OG2 mission which lifted off on July 13 of this year. Also noted was a problem with the Dragon spacecraft’s Reaction Control System thruster pod which occurred during the SpX-2 mission in March of 2013. The letter goes on to mention multiple thruster, avionics and capsule contamination issues. The two politicians also highlight three instances where saltwater entered into the Dragon capsule upon splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. At present, there have been four flights of this new spacecraft.
“Because the vehicles in question were funded by American taxpayer dollars, there should be no issue making this report publicly available. This information is critical to Congress’ understanding of these programs and the associated risks,” wrote Coffman and Gardner.
The letter also details that while SpaceX had some 24 missions scheduled through 2013 – the firm was only been able to conduct seven launches in that timeframe. The letter goes on to note that SpaceX has scheduled 30 launches in 2014 and 2015 – but, to date, has only launched three times.
“In the interest of full disclosure and accountability, we request that NASA publicly release all anomalies and mishap information, un-redacted, so that Congress can gain a better understanding of what has occurred and ensure full transparency. Because the development of the vehicles and capsule in question were funded by NASA dollars, we request that you provide Congress with the information you have on the various aspects of risk and reliability from these programs, including contractual, management, technical, manufacturing, cost, schedule and safety”, wrote Coffman and Gardner.
In terms of NASA, SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract to have the firm conduct 12 cargo resupply flights to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2016. SpaceX has also been tapped to fly astronauts to the ISS and was awarded $440 million by NASA to continue developing Dragon under the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap ). Representative Coffman was approached by SpaceFlight Insider as to the reasoning behind the letter to NASA.
“As a member of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee for the House Armed Services Committee, I’ve read a number of articles that have outlined SpaceX’s problems and I find it ironic that they are targeting ULA for cost issues. It begs the question as to what else is going on with these rockets that we don’t know about.” Coffman said.
Coffman represents the 6th Congressional District, which includes Centennial, Colorado – where United Launch Alliance (ULA )is headquartered.
Since the first flight of the Falcon 9 in 2010, SpaceX has launched a total of ten times, all of these flights have been deemed successful, despite the anomalies noted. The company was founded in 2002 and has rapidly become one of the major players in the aerospace industry. Highlighting this is the July 11 announcement where the U.S. Air Force acknowledged that SpaceX has completed the prerequisite three successful flights required for the Falcon 9 to be considered to compete on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
SpaceX was contacted regarding this matter but declined to comment.
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.