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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

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.

“Some critics.” Yes, SpaceX has a lot of critics, primarily people whose government-funded monopoly rice bowls are being broken by its low-cost (to both taxpayers and other customers) business model.

Last year, Musk gave $5,000 to Obama for America and $35,800 to the Obama Victory Fund, but he has also contributed heavily to Democratic and Republican congressional incumbents and challengers. [Emphasis added]

Is it unusual for a businessman to make political contributions? If not, what is the point of this paragraph? Many assume that he somehow got the commercial cargo contract because he’s somehow a supporter of Obama, but he made a much bigger contribution to (Republican) Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in the current election cycle when he threw a thousand-dollar-per-ticket fundraiser for him at his rocket factory in Hawthorne, California. And SpaceX (along with Orbital Sciences Corporation) won its cargo contract in a fair and open competition. The same applies to its commercial crew contract, which Sierra Nevada Corporation and Boeing also won. But now we come to the real disingenuity:

Under Obama, NASA uses Space Act Agreements (SAA), which lack the financial transparency and competitive bidding requirements bidders face under the government’s Federal Acquisition Regulation (DAR) system.

In a statement to The Washington Examiner, NASA spokesman Trent Perrotto defended SAAs, saying they put “flexibility in the hands of the providers.”

But others, including space program experts and congressional critics from both parties, argue that SAA is a carte blanche handover of public money without litmus tests, design specifications, financial audits and adequate safety oversight.

A former NASA astronaut complained in an interview with the Examiner, that design and financial details under SAA are beyond the reach of government officials.

“The contractors are saying ‘give us some seed money, trust us,’” said the former astronaut, who requested anonymity.

This is nonsense. SAAs are not “carte blanche.” The structure of the commercial cargo and commercial crew contracts are that they are fixed fee, based on pre-agreed performance milestones, or “litmus tests.” NASA knows exactly what the design specifications are for the vehicles, and NASA had plenty of safety oversight for the ISS mission. Yes, NASA doesn’t do financial audits, because on fixed-price contracts, the internal costs to the company are none of NASA’s business, and as stated above, SpaceX and the other contractors have performed for much less than standard industry cost models would have predicted, saving the taxpayers billions over a traditional cost-plus contract. And I love the “former astronaut, who requested anonymity.” Very credible.

But here’s the best part:

Michael D. Griffin, the former NASA Administrator under President George W. Bush, slammed SAA funding, saying it is a system “for which NASA cannot set requirements, cannot direct design features, cannot control management practices (and) cannot require financial audits.”

His comments came in a prepared lecture Sept. 6 at Georgia Tech University.

What the article doesn’t say is that the SAA contract under which SpaceX flew to the ISS this week was, by some strange coincidence, issued by someone named Michael D. Griffin, during the Bush administration. In other words, Musk’s campaign contributions to Barack Obama had nothing to do with it, unless the current president somehow anticipated the future donation or got into his time machine and somehow managed to compel his predecessor to get the NASA administrator to put his thumb on the scale. And this is the same Michael D. Griffin who is angling to get his old job back under a Romney administration, despite the fact that he wasted many billions on a flawed exploration architecture that was ballooning in cost, was slipping in schedule more than a year per year, and had to be put out of its and the taxpayers’ misery three years ago.

He seemed to think that SAAs were just fine then. And they were — his COTS program (Commercial Orbiter Transportation Services) is a success, despite the flawed reporting in this article. But it’s a shame to see the Washington Examiner falling for the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that have been sown for three years now by rent seekers at the traditional NASA teat of both parties, desperately trying to preserve the old socialistic NASA-monopoly space program that has cost the taxpayers a billion dollars per astronaut delivered and was responsible for the deaths of fourteen of them.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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