NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has written to one of its recent congressional critics, assuring even-handed and thorough probes into rocket mission failures.
On Aug. 4, the chairman of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Lamar Smith, suggested that Hawthorne, Calif.-based rocket company SpaceX should not be leading the probe into the June 28 failure of a cargo resupply mission for the International Space Station.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated soon after launch, causing the simultaneous loss of its unmanned Dragon cargo capsule. Bolden’s letter of Aug. 24 explains that SpaceX is leading the probe into that mission failure in keeping with established guidelines.
There also is an ongoing investigation into the Oct. 29 explosion of an Orbital ATK in another ISS cargo mission failure. The companies’ international investigations are being coordinated with NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, but for the Orbital investigation NASA chose to create a more formal “independent review team” to engage with the private-sector contractor.
Bolden sought to assure Smith, R-Texas, that its oversight of the SpaceX probe has been equally rigorous.
“For the Orbital ATK failure, we chose to establish a formal independent review team to amplify the learning for the NASA teams,” he said. “While it may not have been as visible, we chose to do a similar thing for the SpaceX failure, conducting an independent review but using existing mechanisms that were already in place.”
In practice, the distinctions between the two probes are somewhat moot, Bolden said.
“NASA (effectively is) ‘leading’ the independent review effort because of the existing contracts NASA has for high-value missions to be flown on the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and because the next government launch utilizing the Falcon 9 will be a NASA mission,” the space agency administrator wrote. “Although different mechanisms are being utilized, NASA is still conducting an independent review of the two failures.”
The investigations into both the SpaceX and Orbital mission failures continue, though some preliminary findings have been issued. The companies recently cited progress in getting their launch operations back on track.
Congress’ interest in the U.S. space program and related funding issues often is tied to local business interests in individual congressional interests.
Bolden thanked Smith for his “sincere commitment to our nation’s leadership in space.”
He concluded: “While these two recent losses were not welcome, we believe our U.S. commercial space transportation industry will emerge stronger and more competitive from these failures. We have confidence that our commercial suppliers are up to the challenge and will independently review their approaches to return to flight.”