Spaceflight Insider

U.S Representatives raise questions regarding NASA’s contracts with SpaceX

Photo Credit: NASA

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.

Despite the issues noted in the letter, the Falcon 9 has not encountered a serious failure in any of its 10 flights. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

Despite the issues noted in the letter, the Falcon 9 has not encountered a serious failure in any of its 10 flights. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

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.

Representatives Mike Coffman (left) and Cory Gardner (right). Photo courtesy of the Representatives' websites

Representatives Mike Coffman (left) and Cory Gardner (right). Photo courtesy of the Representatives’ websites

 

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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.

Reader Comments

ToMarsAndBeyond

Dear representatives. U are being misused by the ULA in a desperate attempt to discredit SpaceX. Your questions are misplaced in the sense that the vehicles in questions were not funded by taxpayer dollars but are payed for, developed by, and property of SpaceX. So you should really ask SpaceX if you are interested in the details of the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft flights. Where were your questions during the Spaceshuttle program? Where are your questions to the ULA about all details and anomolies of their launches? Uncountable billions of taxdollars went to NASA and ULA, so if you are so seriously concerned, these would be the organisations to target.

According to Elon’s own sworn testimony before Congress, SpaceX received approximately 90% of it’s funding to develop it’s Falcon 9 from the taxpayers, and no, I not going to do anyone’s homework for them, so if you want a specific cite, look it up yourself in the Congrssional Record.

ToMarsAndBeyond

Dear Karol, please get your facts straight!

“In 2014, SpaceX released total combined development costs for both the Falcon 9 and the Dragon capsule. NASA provided US$396 million while SpaceX provided over US$450 million to fund rocket and capsule development efforts.”

And furthermore, NASA is still no more than a client, but not more than 40% and shrinking. This is totally opposite to ULA, where all development stops if not 100% funded by taxpayer money.

ToMarsAndBeyond,
Karol is correct. Several years back Musk testified that approximately 90 percent of the developmental costs for F9 and/or Dragon – came from NASA funds. I’d therefore suggest you apologize for correcting her – when it’s you who are mistaken. I think the problem might be that you’re not going back far enough and are only posting carefully selected data. (edited at 1:21 p.m. EDT)

Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

ToMarsAndBeyond

Dear Jason, Karol,

Since Karol is not prepared to do her homework, and I searched hi an low for the so-called Elon Musk sworn statement, it is nowhere to be found.
I would be very happy to apologize if I have made factual mistakes. Until then, I will stick to the official development costs stated by SpaceX. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_9#Funding.

More important though are the false pretenses of the representatives though. Their concern is not safety nor the taxpayers dollar (otherwise ULA and NASA would be the obvious targets). Their concern is their re-election. As stated in my first post.

Hi TM&B,
At present I’m working the DIV launch. If I can spare a few seconds in the next few days, I’ll try to find the testimony noted. I appreciate the fact you provided a link to the source of your info – and will try to provide the same.
Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

ToMarsAndBeyond

Dear Jason, thanks in advance for your effort to provide a link to Elon’s statement. Much appreciated. In the meantime, I am dead curious to NASA’s answer to the representatives, because I believe it is neither NASA’s responsibility nor its right to disclose details about SpaceX proprietary products. Only a contract between SpaceX and NASA which would specifically state that NASA gains rights to SpaceX products would allow NASA to disclose what the representatives ask for.

Best regards

Hi TM&B,
I partly agree with you – except where it comes to NASA missions. This is because those were bought by the U.S. taxpayer. CASSIOPE, SES-8, Thaicom or Orbcomm? The Representatives don’t need to know. Taking off the journalist hat for a second, I feel uncomfortable with the fact NASA paid for these systems – but has little-to-no control over them. (edited at 6:53 p.m. EDT).
Sincerely and with kind regards, Jason

ToMarsAndBeyond

What is a rockets different than a car/taxi? When you buy one, do you want to know all anomolies that went on during production? No. You want a safe/successful ride. If you get that, you get what you paid for and you are a happy customer. Especially as a taxpayer that pays half the price or less than if ULA had done the launch. So super beneficial to taxpayers and then some reps are worried? Their worry is really that ULA will lose its business to SpaceX. And that might indeed happen for lack of aggressive innovation by ULA. Not that I can blame them much, since Elon Musk is no ordinary competitor, but a very rare phenonenom in human history. Lucky are those not to conpete him.

Hi TM&B,
In terms of congressional hearings. There’s one in 2011 where Rep. Johnson states 9 out of every 10 dollars on CCP – is taxpayer dollars. I’ve also reached out to some of my contacts who validate those numbers. http://science.house.gov/hearing/full-committee-%E2%80%93-hearing

Having said that? I couldn’t find a hearing where Musk cites those numbers either. I got that information from my editor when I was at AmericaSpace and have to admit my failure in checking his comments more thoroughly – as they appear to be false.

So, it’s I who must apologize. As near as I can tell – Musk didn’t testify that 90 percent of the development costs were paid by the U.S. Taxpayer. The only reason I didn’t issue this apology sooner – is I wanted to review the full testimony – and it’s three hours long…

Sincerely and with kind regards, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

As stated by seven time space shuttle veteran and former Chief of the Vehicle Integration Test Office at the Johnson Space Center, and recent inductee into the Astronaut Hall of Fame, Jerry Ross: “As far as the Commercial Crew Program that is going on right now? It has decimated NASA’s own programs. . . . I’ve been told by friends at NASA that most of the money that is going to these Commercial Crew vehicles, some 85 percent of the money being spent on these programs – is NASA money – not commercial money. So to call them ‘Commercial Crew’ vehicles is a grave mis-justice, it’s a political term, designed to get support for these guys. If you look at most of the folks who are doing these programs – most of them are strong political supporters of the current administration.” “Insider Interview: Recent AHOF Inductee Jerry Ross Talks NASA And Commercial Crew” SPACEFLIGHT INSIDER 5 July 2014 by Jason Rihan, Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

ToMarsAndBeyond

Hi Jason, no problem. Thanks for the thorough fact checking.
I am a proponent of unbiased factual information.

Hi Karol, so this administration has made it a policy to privatize access to space. Thus to spend less taxpayers dollars. Then to make this happen, NASA funds some competing companies, which is in the taxpayers interest. Now when NASA would still act as if those companies they fund were required the same paperwork and processes as if they were government organizations, then privatization would have no budget lowering effect at all and everything might just as well stay the under the NASA umbrella. And about decimating NASA’s own programs…priorities should shift from building rockets and spacecraft to research and development, but I read those new priorities are already in place and acted upon. So far so good I would argue.

Hi To, so when NASA is asked to account for taxpayer dollars spent, that’s a good thing. When Musk and his close corporation SpaceX is asked to account for taxpayer dollars spent, that’s a bad thing. When the GAO recently reported that NASA needs more funds for the TAXPAYER OWNED SLS/ORION, when consideration is given to ending operation of the Spitzer telescope and the Opportunity Mars rover for lack of funds, I hardly think that is “so far so good”, but then, I believe a seven time shuttle veteran, AHOF inductee, and former high level NASA official far more than the Prince of PayPal.

ToMarsAndBeyond

Hi Karol, first off, a seven time shuttle veteran etc. says nothing about the quality of his ideas, there is no connection there. “Prince of Paypal” made me laugh, thank you for that. But ridiculing people is a non argument. In my opinion, as I stated in my previous post, the SLS/ORION should be cancelled for the cost in taxpayers interest. Let a lean and mean company like SpaceX do it for a tiny fraction of the cost that NASA would need. No? And yes, priorities must be made. Some projects go, new ones come. Always evaluate costs vs benefits. That things change and are dynamic is to be considered a positive in my mind. Adapt. The most successful in evolution are the ones that adapt the best to changes.

The quality of the ideas of a Jerry Ross, a very brave, intelligent, and accomplished astronaut and highly ranked individual in NASA may not hold much sway with some, but to most of us his opinion is of far greater value than that of an internet PayPal “von Braun”. It says it all, and reaffirms what Jerry Ross said when you stated “Now when NASA would still act as if those companies they fund were required the same paperwork and processes as if they were government organizations, then privatization would have no budget lowering effect at all and everything might as well stay under the NASA umbrella.” Companies they fund – yes, as Jerry Ross said, 85% of the money is not Musk’s money, it is not investors commercial money, it is taxpayer dollars. If SpaceX had to follow the same accounting and disclosure practices as NASA, if SpaceX had to compete on an even playing field with NASA and ULA, there would be no budget lowering effect. So, can SpaceX only compete and provide much vaunted incredible savings if their close corporation does not have to open their books and show how they have spent taxpayer dollars? Interesting. With SpaceX such a big-time money-maker, and his devoted followers willing to plunk down their retirement savings on a sure-thing, why doesn’t Musk trumpet an initial stock offering? He would be “commercial”, free of that nasty ol’ NASA money, and free from non-believers like Jerry Ross and many others who have the right to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. Oh, and of course, SLS/Orion should be cancelled. That’s really the bottom line here. De-fund NASA, cancell SLS/Orion, and funnel the money to my favorite corporation. Same old story, same old song and dance.

JOHN LONGENECKER

April 9, 2015
Just Read The Instructions test on Monday April 13 2015 or thereafter.
If it ever works and rockets start taking off and landing and taking off again
a bunch of early anomalies by SpaceX will be what SpaceX calls innovation.
We can then look forward to lots more SpaceX anomalies. Stay Tuned.
JOHN LONGENECKER

ToMarsAndBeyond

Nice to have someone adding to this old thread. Thanks John. Yeah, very exciting next Monday. Can’t wait for the future, can’t come soon enough for me. Let’s have it! I applaud SpaceX to boldly go where no man has gone before.

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