SpaceX is no stranger to both strong support and harsh criticism of its activities, particularly in political circles. Last month, for example, three members of the House of Representatives asked NASA for details on an “epidemic of anomalies” they claimed the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft have experienced. But the company’s decision early this month to establish a commercial launch site near Brownsville, Texas, generated praise from various officials, including US Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX).
One criticism of SpaceX, though, may have gone too far. On Friday, Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and a regular contributor on defense issues for Forbes.com, published an op-ed on Forbes titled “When SpaceX Falters, Washington Looks The Other Way”. As the title suggests, he claimed that some in Washington, including NASA and the White House, were playing down those anomalies as SpaceX “struggled” to meet its commitments.
By Friday night, though, that link above went to an error message. The op-ed was no longer available on the site, although it is preserved in places like Google’s cache. Neither Thompson nor Forbes have commented on the piece’s disappearance from the website: Forbes did not respond to multiple requests for comment between Saturday and Monday through its “press inquiries” section. Dr. Thompson is still a Forbes contributor: according to his profile page he published another essay (on defense strategy, not space) on Monday.
With neither Thompson nor Forbes publicly commenting, it’s not clear what happened to the essay. However, it did make claims that are difficult to verify, or may simply be incorrect. Thompson’s piece started with a “story making the rounds in Washington’s space community” that the White House pressured the National Reconnaissance Office (the “spy agency responsible for operating reconnaissance satellites”, as Thompson described it without naming it) to move ahead with certifying SpaceX for launching its payloads. “The story goes on that SpaceX was then assigned three secret payloads on a sole-source (uncompeted) basis.”
Of course, the NRO is not leading the launch certification process, which is instead being handled by the Air Force. (The new head of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, met with SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell earlier this month to discuss that effort, the Air Force reported yesterday.) There’s no evidence that SpaceX won, via sole source contracts, launches of three “secret payloads.” While some might argue those contracts were also assigned in secret, the Air Force is openly competing the launch of another NRO mission, NROL-79.
As to whether that “story making the rounds” is true, Thompson shrugs. “Is the story true? I don’t know — I lack the necessary clearances to find out,” he wrote in the story’s next paragraph. “But accurate or apocryphal, the story captures a little-noticed feature of how SpaceX has fared in Washington.”
Much of the rest of Thompson’s piece is less controversial, covering familiar topics: delays in SpaceX’s fulfillment of its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA and the previously-mentioned “anomalies” on Falcon 9 and Dragon missions. Even here, though, some of the details are questionable: he says SpaceX delayed a NASA CRS mission to launch two commercial satellites “for a Chinese state-controlled enterprise.” AsiaSat, the enterprise in question, is publicly-traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange and, while partially owned by a Chinese state-owned investment fund, is also partially owned by American conglomerate GE.
This is not the first time that Thompson has criticized SpaceX: in June he sought to tell the “other side of the story” of SpaceX’s dispute with the Air Force, citing a “raft of problems” with SpaceX’s launch vehicles and their limited performance. Thompson’s own critics, though, note that he is not an unbiased observer: before it was deleted, Thompson’s latest piece included the disclaimer that “Several of SpaceX’s competitors contribute to my think tank; two of them — Lockheed Martin Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada — are consulting clients.” (Lockheed Martin has been included in disclaimers in prior pieces, like the June essay, but SNC is a new one.)