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The curious case of a deleted Forbes.com commentary on SpaceX

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.)

33 comments to The curious case of a deleted Forbes.com commentary on SpaceX

  • Of the many fibs written by Mr. Thompson, one of those has to do with the delays.

    One reason the Obama administration added STS-135 which launched in July 2011 was to deliver enough cargo to buy SpaceX time to complete their milestones. SpaceX did their demo flight in May 2012, and their first official delivery in October 2012. SpaceX doesn’t choose when to fly their CRS missions; that’s up to the customer, NASA. The customer isn’t going to send up the cargo ship when there’s no place to store the cargo, or the cargo isn’t ready to ship yet because the experiments are tied to some specific event.

    Mr. Thompson also failed to mention the delays due to factors beyond SpaceX’s control, e.g. the fire at the USAF TEL-4 tracking station or the bad weather. He certainly failed to mention all the delays for the last ULA Delta IV launch, which included a leak and bad weather.

    But the bottom line is that the commercial cargo and crew programs were created specifically to encourage innovation by permitting failure and delay, in the hope that the innovation would bring down the cost. COTS is perhaps the best success story to come out of NASA in a generation (other than perhaps Curiosity). SpaceX is doing exactly what NASA expected it to do when Michael Griffin approached Elon Musk in 2006. Funny how Mr. Thompson didn’t mention that either. Shills never do.

  • Coastal Ron

    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.

    I think that pretty sums up the reason why Forbes pulling the piece – it was nothing more than unconfirmed rumors.

    And considering the animosity many “OldSpace” companies have for SpaceX, including some that fund Mr. Thompson, I would imagine that Forbes wanted more than just unconfirmed rumors to support such specific claims.

    I would imagine he’ll be free to republish once he has some verifiable facts, but until then this is going to tarnish his already tarnished reputation…

  • Brian Swiderski

    The anti-SpaceX propaganda is starting to get pathetic. At first it was just very unfair, now it’s being written from some alternate universe that bears little resemblance to ours.

  • josh

    mmore paid for bullshit/fud by thompson. no surprise here. his ‘think tank’ is nothing but a corporate pr agency.

  • Malmesbury

    “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.”

    Given that the NRO doesn’t decide who launches what, that story is bovine manure. Simple fact checking, no security clearance required.

    All flights and contracts to fly Airforce payloads have been released, discussed etc well in advance for decades. Press kit per flight etc.

  • Thompson’s is not the only blarney flying around. It appears that the article from TechCrunch was wrong about SpaceX receiving $200 million dollars of extra capital investment. Elon denies it, “““SpaceX is not currently raising any funding nor has any external valuation of that magnitude or higher been done,” John Taylor, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail. “The source in this report is mistaken.”
    http://www.businessweek.com/news/2014-08-19/musk-s-spacex-denies-blog-report-of-capital-raising-plan

  • Ad Astra

    “Mr. Thompson also failed to mention the delays due to factors beyond SpaceX’s control, e.g. the fire at the USAF TEL-4 tracking station or the bad weather. He certainly failed to mention all the delays for the last ULA Delta IV launch, which included a leak and bad weather.”

    A delay of less than one week due to 1 ground environmental control system and 3 weather scrubs hardly equates to SpaceX delaying OC2 for 4+ YEARS after remanifesting from Falcon 1 to 9 and then scrubbing or rescheduling 15 times between September 2013 and July 2014.

    • Guest

      You’re right, the second they switched from the Falcon 1 to the Falcon 9 and then Falcon 9.1 they should have demanded a full refund that gone to another carrier. They did that, right?

      • Ad Astra

        No, but rather than refund the 75% fee they had collected, they gave back $4 mil and a new launch date in 2012. Then proceeded to burn up OCX in the atmosphere. Then bumped OC2 from 2013 to 2014 to accommodate higher paying customers. Meanwhile Orbcomm had to lease replacement satellites and saw its market share and relative valuations erode vs competitors (Globalstar, Inmarsat, Iridium).

        Sure they are getting two launches for $47 million, but taking 5% hits in one day due to SpaceX scrubs doesn’t keep the shareholders happy.

  • Dennis Wingo

    All of this faldeol reminds me of the problems that Richard Branson had when he had the audacity to get into the airline business and challenge the reigning British Airways for business. It also reminds me of the Mississippi congressman who introduced an amendment to a NASA funding bill to force SpaceX into FAR contract rules rather than their space act agreement. It just happened to also be the case that incumbent aerospace contractors were his largest contributors.

    None of this should surprise anyone, it is how legacy industries always act toward newcomers. Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat had his first boat burned by the stagecoach businesses he was going to compete with. After his victory and 20 years later, he was the main opposition to the first railroad across New York from his position on the board of directors of the Erie canal.

    Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

    • Robert G. Oler

      Dennis is absolutely correct and I would agree with everything he wrote. But you dont have to go across the pond to find problems with upstarts. SWA ran into political headwinds when they started up, headwinds which were all politically motivated from companies who could not 1) see the changing direction the industry was going and 2) were unable to compete once they saw them.

      The “race” between Braniff and SWA (and the help by Jim Wright) is not much different the ULA and SpaceX

      BTW Dennis…what a fine effort you and your team put forth on ISEE3…to bad about the nitrogen…but that does not detract at all from the splendid attempt. I think you all changed the future some. WB5MZO

      Robert G. Oler

  • Everyone knows SpaceX is politically well connected with the leftist activists who currently control space policy and most of the rest of government. I’m sure they had the story quashed. Forbes can be pressured like any other company with the right phone call, unfortunately. Does anyone here think this is above the Obama Administration?

    Meantime SpaceX continues to flood cyberspace videos non-events like their powered first stage crash landings landings into the Atlantic.

    • common sense

      Can’t believe it, you are becoming just a shadow of your former self! Or are you taking lessons from Thompson? You are “sure they had the story squashed”? Yeah sure.

      WH: “Forbes remove the story or we will have it squashed!!!”
      Forbes: “How do you squash a story?”
      WH: “We use the might of the United States!!! What else?”
      Forbes: “You’ll send the Army to squash our computers?”
      WH: “Yep. We’ve done it before!”
      Forbes: “It’s on the Internet”
      WH: “We’ll squash the Internet!!!”
      Forbes: “With what?”
      WH: “Prof. Nefario’s Internet Squasher of course”.

      Anywho.

    • Mercy777

      Common Sense and Dick just ‘squashed’ you.

  • Thanks for posting the cache link. A very interesting expose. We are 5 years into the Newspace future. It is pretty moribund.

  • Amightywind: Does anyone here think this is above the Obama Administration?

    Not at all. However, since when is supporting the most private company, with a rocket that other private companies are willing to buy, and the company that has put by far the most private money into the spaceflight game (especially when measured as a percentage of the corporate purse), a “leftist” act, as you imply. Surely, supporting Lockheed and (to a lesser degree) Boeing in building a super-expensive rocket with no private market and no private funding is the “leftist” act.

    We are 5 years into the Newspace future. It is pretty moribund.

    Oh, I don’t know. So far, Constellation / Orion / SLS have nothing to show for all the billions showered on them, much of which was wasted on developing a medium class launch vehicle, but one capsule nearing flight test on a different rocket. On the Newspace side, We have two brand spanking new operational medium-class launch vehicles; two operational freight vehicles, one of them capable of return flights and all of the above flying several times a year; one heavy launch vehicle no further from flight than the SLS, and no less than three human spacecraft nearing flight test. I could not care less whether it’s leftist or rightist, but I like the demonstrated Newspace performance a whole hell of a lot better than even the promised the Oldspace performance.

    Speaking of the upcoming flight test: It does not strike me a particularly wise, politically, to launch your Oldspace capsule all the way to orbit on an operational and far less expensive rocket on its first flight — thus proving beyond a shadow of a doubt for the incoming Administration that you really don’t need the SLS at all.

    – Donald

    • Boeing in building a super-expensive rocket with no private market and no private funding is the “leftist” act.

      In this case the term leftist refers not to economics but to those in our current administration who reject traditional American values. One of which is projecting national strength through NASA, like any other branch of the military.

      • I actually agree with you on this one. Our stated values rarely correspond with our values in practice. (E.g., like Apollo and SLS on a bigger scale, the highway and freeway systems are as socialist as it gets: paid for and mostly build and maintained by the government for government purposes, and quiet explicitly intended to distort a market served by far more efficient private rail roads that never would have paid for this infrastructure.)

        However, I have yet to hear you state that you, or we as a country, value socialism-in-practice at least as much as we value the “free market” of our rhetoric. We would be far better off if we admitted reality — that we use government investment to start and subsidize many of our technologies (Internet, automobiles, aircraft, shipping) — and use free market principles to create the services and software that ride on top of them — and acted with honestly accordingly. Instead, we persist in believing a pure fiction and acting according to that fiction, which does far more to distort our practical behavior than any amount of government intervention in the economy. And, as I’ve argued here before, based on economic results, it is far from clear “pure” free markets perform better than mixed economies.

        To the question at hand, I also agree with you that One [American value is] projecting national strength through NASA and we should do a lot more of it. However, the best way to project American value is not to waste all our money developing a totally useless rocket. It’s to use our money to create new industries that actually earn our nation money and don’t have to be supported by taxpayers. In the model of the Internet, air travel (but not the automobile which, except for the cheapest part of the system, is in no way private), it is (past) time for the government to bow out of providing infrastructure to LEO in favor of providing infrastructure to places in deep space that private companies are not yet ready to tackle. Private or partially private companies, be they Lockheed Martin or SpaceX, are perfectly capable of launching all the hardware to LEO that we need, and will soon be capable of providing pressurized modules and deep space propulsion. NASA does not need to do this with its limited budget.

        If we want to explore, industrialize, and colonize the Solar System, the British East India company which largely built the British Empire should be a key model. The Admiralty did not buy the ships or pay for the crews, though they did defend the sea lanes and the British government heavily subsidized them and provided many of the markets they served. As for the results, history speaks for itself.

        NASA should pay Lockheed, Boeing, SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences, et al, to launch payloads and subsidize development of future launch technologies. They should establish bases (e.g., the ISS, lunar bases (plural intended), refueling depots, experiment with asteroid and lunar mining, and establish an outpost on PhD – much of which might be affordable if we weren’t paying for the SLS to nowhere) — and create markets. Then, let the rocket companies supply them. NASA should not at this point in our history be building giant rockets that sop up all our money while not providing new technologies, capabilities, or markets.

        Even on purely military grounds, this is the way to go.

        – Donald

      • common sense

        ” those in our current administration who reject traditional American values”

        Funny I thought that entrepreneurship was one such value that most praise and add to the American Exceptionalism.

        It seems to you USA = Projection of Force. And that’s about it. Which reminds me of some problem men start facing in their 50s maybe. Big SUVs, big guns, big rockets, big egos, all things big. Odd isn’t it?

        • Common Sense: It seems to you USA = Projection of Force.

          The ironic thing, of course, is that the SLS is far more useless for projection of force than it is for industrialization. You could make a case for its use in the projection of soft power, but as I argue above, I think expanding real economic power into cis-lunar space is a far more effective way of projecting soft power.

          – Donald

          • common sense

            Donald.

            It is true that historically HSF has been about soft-power projection even though it might have even become more than soft a few times. It was due to the Cold War and even ISS was a result of the Cold War.

            But times have changed. We are not going to impress any one with a big rocket that can fly every 2 to 3 years and an architecture that will bankrupt NASA. We even take the risk of being the laughing stock of the rest of the world with our ridiculous desire to impress.

            Fortunately, this country is full of contradictions and ready to take on new crazy approaches such as fostering commercial space (or the Internet or so many other things) that no one else is ready to do.

            So yes there is a potential for developing a new space based economy which would be far more effective than a big rocket to demonstrate the power of the US over pretty much anyone else. It’s even better than the usual soft-power meme. It’s hardcore stuff, the economy that is. Not the big rocket thingy. You know…

            My comment was directed to our friend amightywind not to you. Just in case.

            Thanks for your note in the other thread btw.

        • Dick Eagleson

          Which reminds me of some problem men start facing in their 50s maybe. Big SUVs, big guns, big rockets, big egos, all things big. Odd isn’t it?

          Come on, admit it; you’re a chick, right? :)

      • Vladislaw

        America can project strength through NASA by utilizing NASA the most efficent way possible. By priming the pump on space technology, and then shoveling that tech into the private sector as fast as possible, create new markets and then DOMINATING those new markets with domestic companies.

      • Dick Eagleson

        I wonder if it’s too late to point out that NASA is not a branch of the military in spite of Windy’s long-time insistence that it is.

  • One correction: That should say, much of which was wasted on failing to successfully develope a medium class launch vehicle.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    USAF is the launch purchase agent for the DOD. NRO couldn’t buy launches (secret or otherwise) from SpaceX if it wanted to. For better or worse, NRO launch demand goes through USAF.

    How Thompson could claim to offer expert opinion on launch issues in the defense sector and not know this fundamental fact about how DOD launches are procured is contradictory. He’s either a liar or an idiot (or both).

  • DocM

    Political.com did an article on Thompson in 2010 that’s interesting,

    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1210/46155.html

    “Still, Thompson often draws criticism that his opinions come for a price.

    The 501(c)(3) Lexington Institute doesn’t disclose its donors. But Thompson said it receives contributions from defense giants Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and others, which pay Lexington to “comment on defense.”

    The institute brought in $2.4 million in 2009, according to its financial statements. Thompson proposes projects to its clients, such as one he wrote earlier this year denouncing subsidies received by the European Union, an argument used by Boeing for bouncing its competitor EADS from the effort to win the $35 billion tanker contract.”

    And so on….

  • ART

    Red, White, Blue.
    These colors dont run!…err, the world.
    Only open source architecture has EVER had any significant long term benefit to the US, and thus the world economy. Where would we be if not for IBM’s PC, the small-block engine aftermarket, and Unix?
    Musk is right on this. Not getting the defense launches put less assurance in their launch schedule..for now… but letting cronies of Oldspace Stink Stick properspirant continue to operate unchallenged on all fronts pushes back the timetable for getting open-source hardware out there.
    I smell fear. Mmmmmmm….

  • ART

    Notice how Musk confronts this stuff personally and publicly, while whatever corporate drones working for the pseudo entity ULA go out and hire weenie sock puppets dressed as journalists (“Limbaughs”) to spew doubt and confusion wrapped in the flag, shoveling Costco apple pie, bible, and thinly disguised ethnic ad hominem at the executive branch.
    Sure, SpaceX might become some bastard organization in the future, par for the course for upstarts fast becoming the old power…but not EVERY person, company or even Strongman has gone that route. Washington didn’t, and I bet Musk wouldn’t. If he were out-done by someone better, he would probably cheer them on, and buy up his companies last rocket to take the final ride. He ain’t gonna be hurtin’ for groceries.
    SpaceX is a good shop, and they have built a helluva good boat. Loren (is that really a dude’s name?) Isn’t a builder, designer, sailor, or an honest wordsmith. He does’t qualify to sweep my shop, much less comment on the work or doings of his betters.

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