Rep. Lamar Smith. Image source: Huffington Post.
Space News reported August 13 that House Science Committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) sent a letter August 4 to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden accusing the agency of giving preferential treatment to commercial cargo delivery company SpaceX.
Reporter Dan Leone wrote:
In an Aug. 4 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asked why the space agency formed an independent review team to investigate the Oct. 28 failure of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket during a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission, but did not do the same following the June 28 failure of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on a similar mission.
“The discrepancy between the approaches taken by NASA in response to these two similar events raises questions about not only the equity and fairness of NASA’s process for initiating independent accident investigations, but also the fidelity of the investigations themselves,” Smith wrote.
According to the letter, NASA’s CRS contracts with Orbital ATK and SpaceX give the agency discretion to independently investigate mishaps during commercial cargo launches, even though NASA does not have any statutory imperative to do so. CRS launches are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, making most accident investigations the responsibility of the launch provider.
Reuters reported the letter on August 6. Neither news source published the letter online. Reporter Andrea Shalal wrote that the letter “was seen by Reuters.”
Space News published an August 12 response from a NASA spokeswoman:
“Under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which licensed the launch, and per FAA regulations, SpaceX is leading its mishap investigation, as Orbital ATK is leading the investigation into its October 2014 mishap, both with FAA oversight. NASA is participating in both efforts and is confident both companies will understand the specifics of their respective mishaps, learn from them, and correct the issues so they can return to flight.”
As chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Rep. Smith is a favorite recipient of campaign contributions from aerospace companies.
According to OpenSecrets.org, Smith's 2014 election campaign received these contributions from SpaceX rivals:
- Lockheed Martin $20,000
- Boeing $16,000
- Orbital Sciences $13,500
- Alliant Techsystems (ATK) $9,998
- Sierra Nevada Corp. $5,000
Orbital and ATK merged in February, becoming Orbital ATK. Combining their two companies' 2014 contributions, that comes to about $23,500 donated by the SpaceX rival with a current cargo contract.
The database reports that SpaceX gave Rep. Smith $11,000 — $2,500 from individuals, and $8,500 from its political action committee.
The Wall Street Journal reported August 12 that NASA had delayed “the timetable for picking companies to ship supplies and experiments into orbit under the agency’s commercial cargo resupply program, a decision some industry officials previously said was scheduled for August or September.”
A Lockheed Martin Jupiter/Exoliner promotional video. LockMart donated $20,000 to Rep. Smith's 2014 re-election campaign. Video source: LockheedMartinVideos YouTube channel.
The incumbents, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, presumably submitted bids. Boeing has proposed a cargo version of its CST-100 commercial crew capsule. Lockheed Martin has proposed the Jupiter, described as a “reusable space servicing vehicle.”
Sierra Nevada Corp. has long touted its Dream Chaser spaceplane as a versatile robotic craft for transporting crew or cargo. In April 2014, SNC announced a deal to land in Houston at Ellington Field's new spaceport. In June 2015, SNC announced a deal to study landings at Huntsville, near NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
So I'm left wondering if Rep. Smith's letter was an attempt to influence NASA's selection of the next commercial cargo contractors.
The House of Representatives is in recess for the month of August. It will be interesting to see if Rep. Smith calls an investigative hearing when he returns from vacation to further his accusations in an attempt to pressure NASA into selecting a vendor other than SpaceX.
UPDATE August 26, 2015 — NASA has released a five-page response to Rep. Smith from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden politely explaining that the congressman's accusations are baseless.
Bolden wrote that on August 3, the day before Smith sent his letter, the Chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel had informed the policy director of Smith's committee that the charges were baseless. But that didn't stop Smith from sending his letter the next day.