A lot was riding on the Crew Dragon’s safe return Friday after SpaceX became the first company to dock a commercial spacecraft at the International Space Station a week prior. While the docking was praised by NASA as “a historic achievement,” SpaceX was nonetheless in desperate need of a win in the form of the shuttle’s safe return from the test flight, to be followed later by a crewed mission. But while the news turned out good, the company and its owner, Elon Musk, can’t yet rest easy.
SpaceX has faced mounting adversity over the past few months by failing to secure big-ticket government contracts. Most recently, NASA passed over SpaceX and awarded a $150 million contract to the United Launch Alliance, Musk’s leading competitor in aerospace. But the real danger for the company comes in the form of the Pentagon’s Inspector General investigation into SpaceX’s launch certification, which for the sake of taxpayers needs to be thorough.
In early February, the Inspector General announced that it would be launching an investigation into SpaceX’s certification as a government launch provider. The Pentagon has not been entirely forthcoming about the investigation’s scope, but the inspector general’s office did say that the audit decision is part of a larger project of government oversight. Given the significant taxpayer and national security interests at stake, it’s a good sign that they’re taking such interest in the certification process.
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Ever since SpaceX settled its lawsuit with the U.S. Air Force in 2015 and was awarded launch certification, the aerospace company has relied extensively on government contracts to turn a profit. Some say the company’s bottom line is extremely fragile even with help from the government. Moving forward, the Inspector General investigation could certainly hinder SpaceX’s ability to secure additional government contracts.
The question then becomes: why would the Inspector General want to do that? While there are plenty of possible motives behind the move to open the investigation, the most likely explanation is SpaceX’s questionable record of security and compliance and questions surrounding potential cronyism.
A prior Inspector General investigation in December 2017 showed that SpaceX has serious problems when it comes to quality control. The report found that, out of the 181 “deviations” in the quality of SpaceX’s products and processes, over a third were classified as “major nonconformities,” indicating a dangerous lack of quality assurance. A new Inspector General investigation of SpaceX means a chance to follow up on these prior concerns.
If the IG finds that SpaceX was improperly provided its credentials as a government contractor, the result would certainly be catastrophic for the company. Not only could SpaceX lose its primary source of income, but its reputation as a legitimate aerospace contractor would be severely damaged. To make matters worse, Musk is also under investigation for being filmed smoking marijuana on Joe Rogen’s podcast, which is against the rules for a security clearance holder.
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In general, competition in the space industry is a good thing. But so, too, is the government being a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars and operating in a transparent and forthright manner.
Given the circumstances under which SpaceX received its Air Force certification — following a lawsuit challenging contracts awarded to a competitor — it’s only prudent to review the process and ensure that bureaucrats didn’t react purely out of fear, or that there were no shenanigans involved. The latter is a concern thanks to congressional attempts over multiple years to add language seemingly designed to favor SpaceX to the annual National Defense Authorization Agreements, with the most recent effort proving successful.
Given the degree to which other companies owned by Musk, such as Tesla and SolarCity, benefit from government largesse, taxpayers ought to take a bit of comfort in the fact that there are at least some government watchdogs out there taking their responsibilities seriously.
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