After baffling Falcon 9 rocket explosion, SpaceX screams: Hands off our probe!

Political foes and allies gear up for oversight fight

The quest to discover exactly why a SpaceX rocket exploded on the pad last month is getting complicated – with politicians fighting over who will control the investigation.

On Thursday, a group of ten Republican congresscritters sent a letter [PDF] to NASA administrator Charles Boden, Federal Aviation Administration boss Michael Huerta, and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James expressing concern that there have now been two Falcon 9 explosions and no federal probe into what may be going wrong.

"We feel strongly that the current investigation should be led by NASA and the Air Force to ensure that proper investigative engineering rigor is applied and that the outcomes are sufficient to prevent NASA and military launch mishaps in the future," the letter states.

According to the Republican congressmen, SpaceX could be putting lives at risk if commercial crew launches proceed as planned. That's actually not proven, since the new crew capsule has been certified for escapes, but the letter writers also bemoan the fact that valuable hardware has been destroyed in the explosions.

If you look at a few of the signatories, one might suspect other motives. The letter's promulgator, Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO), just happens to represent the district that's home to SpaceX's bitter rivals at the United Launch Alliance – a firm that would love Elon's Musketeers to get caught up in a lengthy federal investigation.

Now SpaceX has hit back with an open letter from its supporters in Congress to the same three government officials. It thanks the Air Force and FAA for its support in the investigation, but reminds them that under federal law, SpaceX has the right to investigate itself.

Under the terms of licensing legislation for space flight, if an occurrence is classified as a mishap rather than an accident, then it's up to the rocketeers to find out what went wrong. The FAA investigates accidents, classified as "a fatality or serious injury to a space flight participant or crew, fatality or serious injury to any person not associated with the flight, or any damage estimated to exceed $25,000 to property that is not associated with the flight."

"Accidents are unfortunate events, and accident investigations should not be politicized," the letter [PDF] concludes. "We encourage you to reject calls for your organizations to abandon established, well-considered, and long-standing procedures."

The letter is signed by 24 bipartisan members of congress and published by Representative Bill Flores (R-TX), whose constituency includes SpaceX rocket facilities. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) also signed the letter, as the member of congress for SpaceX's headquarters in California. ®

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