This week marked a major milestone for utilization of the International Space Station and for commercial spaceflight: the (largely) successful Falcon 9 launch of a Dragon cargo spacecraft, which berthed with the station on Wednesday. (The successful launch is caveated because of the failure of one of the nine engines on the Falcon 9′s first stage during ascent, which did not affect the Dragon but led to the rocket’s secondary payload, an ORBCOMM OG2 demonstration satellite, being placed in a low orbit; the spacecraft lasted there only a few days before deorbiting.) The political reaction to the launch was limited: among the few statements about the launch was a press release Wednesday by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who called the Dragon mission “a triumph of America’s ingenuity and the free market system.”
Shortly after liftoff Sunday night, President Obama’s Florida campaign issued a statement about the launch, tying it to the administration’s space policy. “Tonight’s launch of the Space X, [sic] Falcon 9 rocket and the autonomous Dragon spacecraft marks another extraordinary new milestone in space, further demonstrating the advances we have seen in just four short years on Florida’s Space Coast,” it reads. Claiming that the president “inherited a program in crisis” when he took office, now “the International Space Station has an extended life, there is growth in the country’s commercial space industry, and a promise to continue a commitment of human exploration, science, and other aeronautic programs.”
Contrast that with an article Thursday published by the Washington Examiner that attempts to tie the mission to SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s political contributions to the Obama campaign. The article makes some odd claims (including suggesting that because the Falcon lost an engine it “only delivered 882 of the promised 1,800 pounds of resupply cargo for the space station”; Dragon delivered all 400 kilograms of cargo it was loaded with to the ISS) and then goes on mention Musk’s contributions to the Obama campaign and perceived flaws in the use of Space Act Agreements (“a carte blanche handover of public money without litmus tests”) to support such efforts.
The problem with both the Obama campaign release and the Examiner article is that the Obama Administration had little to do with the Dragon cargo mission to the ISS. The Dragon and Falcon 9 were developed under a COTS award made in August 2006, during the Bush Administration. That, too, was a Space Act Agreement, which makes former NASA administrator Mike Griffin’s criticism of such agreements, mentioned in the Examiner article, look odd, since the administrator at the time of the COTS award was… Mike Griffin. In addition, the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, which this Dragon mission is the first of twelve, was awarded by NASA to SpaceX in December 2008, a month before President Obama took office.
While the success of this mission helps validate the commercial crew approach that this administration has championed (especially since SpaceX is one of the companies developing such systems, based on the Falcon 9 and Dragon), the role the administration played—either good or bad, depending on your point of view—of enabling the mission itself appears to be overstated.