Is SpaceX Wasting Taxpayer Dollars?
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has made a name for itself as an innovative company on the cutting edge of aerospace technology. Behind the successful marketing, however, lies a disturbing case of cronyism that needs more investigation and public transparency.
In 2012, SpaceX successfully made its first cargo shipments to and from the International Space Station. Since then the company has done multiple cargo resupply missions for NASA. In 2016, NASA awarded SpaceX a second version of its Commercial Resupply Services contract covering an additional flights from 2019 onward. As a company, their total contracts are worth $12 billion including commercial satellite launches as well as NASA and U.S. government missions. Of that total, $5.5 billion is from government contracts from NASA and the Air Force.
In early January, a classified American spy satellite attached to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket failed to reach orbit. The secret payload, code-named Zuma, failed to separate correctly and is believed to have returned to the atmosphere. The satellite is estimated to be worth close to a billion dollars. When the process works correctly, the package releases once the rockets engines stop firing. If this doesn’t happen at the right time, however, it can become damaged or plummet back to earth, wasting millions of the taxpayers’ dollars.
The Pentagon has deflected questions about the launch. Spokesperson Dana White told a Bloomberg New reporter, “I would have to refer you to SpaceX, who conducted the launch.” Meanwhile, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell denied any wrongdoing and refused to answer questions, claiming that it would break confidentiality agreements with the government. This silence breaks precedent. In the past, the government has been forthcoming with information when failures of this magnitude reach the public’s attention. Details of the operation may be too sensitive to disclose, but, at the very least, the government is obligated to account for the loss of this highly expensive payload.
This is not the first time the government has had problems with the Falcon 9. A government evaluation of quality controls among launch vehicle suppliers showed 181 deviations from SpaceX. One-third of these were classified as major non-conformities, meaning the launches were at high risk of failure.
A second report completed by NASA singled out two major concerns about the company’s involvement in the civil space agencies commercial crew program — the program that delivers people to the International Space Station. The first issue involves deficiencies discovered in their cryogenic oxygen pressure vessels, which are believed to have caused a 2016 launch pad explosion that destroyed an Israeli satellite. The second issue is that SpaceX protocol calls for astronauts to be loaded before a supercooled fuel is added. Despite the fact that this deviates from the standard method, SpaceX continues with an approach that could put human lives at risk in the future.
It is dumbfounding that more questions aren’t being asked about SpaceX. Despite the government’s knowledge of systemic deficiencies with SpaceX rockets and systems, it continues to contract with them, putting billions of taxpayer dollars in the hands of an unreliable company. The government should release the details of SpaceX’s recent failed launch to the public. The taxpayers deserve greater transparency and reassurance that our money is not funding celebrity companies while compromising national security and fiscal responsibility.
Sam Dunkovich is a Young Voices Advocate and graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay currently living in Oakland, CA. You can find him on Twitter @DunkovichSam.