A recent piece in the American Spectator raised questions about how launch accidents caused by SpaceX is being treated as opposed to those resulting from other contractors. The article notes that SpaceX suffered two accidents that led to a total loss of the launch vehicle, the Falcon 9. However, unlike with a similar accident involving an Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences, the results of a NASA investigation into the cause of the first accident, which occurred on June 2015, has not been made public.

Why won’t NASA release the results of its investigation?

The American Spectator piece notes that promises to the contrary, NASA has decided not to release the results of its investigation into the June 2015 accident.

The accident featured an explosion of the Falcon 9 soon after launch and the loss of a Dragon cargo ship with over $110 million of supplies for the International Space Station. An investigation conducted by SpaceX concluded that a defective strut built by an outside contractor attached to a helium tank was the root cause of the accident. However, some evidence suggests that the NASA investigation, conducted by the space agency’s Launch Services Program came to different conclusions.

The aerospace blog Parabolic Arc cites sources that suggest that NASA thinks that the cause of the June 2015 accident rests in practices conducted by SpaceX. These include “manufacturing damage, improper installation, and materials selection.” The subsequent Sept 2016 explosion on the pad that destroyed a Falcon 9, a satellite payload, and much of the launch pad raised further questions about SpaceX practices.

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Orbital Antares accident treated differently

NASA treated an accident that destroyed an Orbital Sciences Antares a little different than it did those that destroyed two Spacex Falcon 9. In October 2014 the Antares exploded soon after launch from Wallops Island in Virginia, destroying the launch vehicle, the Cygnes cargo ship, and $51 million in supplies for the ISS. The cause of the explosion was traced to a turbo pump failure in the AJ26 engine. Orbital has undertaken to replace those engines with a newer model RD-181. Unlike with the 2015 Falcon 9 mishap, NASA released an executive summary of its accident report a year later.

What is going on?

The American Spectator piece suggests that cronyism is going on between NASA and SpaceX. However, even though SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was a political supporter of President Barack Obama, relations between him and President Trump, after an initial alliance, have become been decidedly cooler. At the same time, subsequent to the Sept 2016 accident, SpaceX has achieved a long string of launch successes.

Moreover, the company has achieved a degree of reusability of the Falcon 9 first stage in landing a number of them, either near the launch site or a drone barge out to sea. Nevertheless, NASA is still concealing its accident investigation report. The Senate has included a provision in its NASA budget legislation a demand that the space agency release a copy of its report within 30 days of its passage. NASA, in the meantime, is denying that it is affording SpaceX special treatment.