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An Examiner Hit Piece on SpaceX

Twisting the facts and adding a few of its own.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

October 12, 2012 - 11:11 pm
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This is disappointing, from the headline, to the picture, to the extreme disingenuity and factual distortions, and omission of relevant facts throughout. I expect better from the Washington Examiner.

Let’s start with the headline: “Obama funder gets insider deal at NASA.”

One would reasonably infer from this that the only reason that SpaceX got the space station resupply contract was because Elon Musk has contributed to the Obama campaign. Simply put, this is nonsense. But more on that below.

The picture itself is clearly calculated to make Mr. Musk appear clueless and foolish. He is neither.

And the piece itself is both misleading and factually incorrect right from the opening paragraphs:

Questions are being raised about NASA’s relationship with Silicon Valley whiz Elon Musk in the wake of his Falcon 9 rocket delivering only half of the promised cargo on its first mission to the International Space Station.

The rocket lost power from one of its nine engines shortly after its Sunday launch and only delivered 882 of the promised 1,800 pounds of resupply cargo for the space station.

“Questions are being raised.” Got to love that passive voice. Who, on the record (and no, “nameless NASA astronauts,” as cited later in the piece, don’t count), is raising these questions? I rarely see them raised by anyone other than people, either in industry or on the Hill, whose gravy train will be derailed by a privatized and competitive space program.

Anyway, the first statement is factually false. The vehicle delivered all of the payload that NASA expected, and was loaded into the vehicle in Florida. The second paragraph implies that there is some relationship between the amount of payload delivered and the fact that the rocket lost an engine in flight. It also implies that NASA was expecting 1800 pounds on this mission, but that somehow some of it fell out the window during ascent, or was tossed overboard as ballast, or space aliens hijacked some of the cargo on the way or…something. Does the reporter really find this a plausible scenario?

I’m not sure where he gets his 1800 pound number, but perhaps it’s the amount of payload stipulated in the resupply contract that SpaceX be capable of delivering. And in fact, the vehicle could have carried that much payload in terms of mass on this flight, even with the engine failure, which didn’t affect performance to the ISS at all (the only effect it had on the mission was that a secondary payload was delivered to the wrong orbit, and the owner of that satellite is not unhappy, because it still achieved most of its mission objectives for a very low cost). On this very flight, it actually delivered almost a ton, about half of which was useful payload (the rest was packaging for the various equipment and experiments).

Let’s go on:

These are not the Falcon 9 project’s first setbacks, as it is at least two years behind schedule and three previous test launches were cancelled.

First, it’s not in any way unusual for space projects to be behind schedule, and SpaceX has been behind schedule for an order of magnitude less money than NASA would be (and often has been) for a similar project, according to NASA’s own cost models. And I have no idea what he’s talking about with “test launches cancelled.” There have been postponements and delays, often for reasons beyond the company’s control (for example, issues with the range), but all planned test flights to date have flown, other than in one case where two previously planned flights were combined into a single one (the successful test flight to ISS in May).

The questions being raised in the wake of the equipment failures, however, concern the Falcon 9′s mission funding instead of its technology, with some critics charging NASA made a sweetheart deal that lacks transparency and accountability.

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