Companies like Boeing and SpaceX may both be working with NASA to return Americans to space in rockets and crew vessels of our own design. The companies are competitors, not partners, and they’re competing for some of the most lucrative, important contracts of the 21st century. They also aren’t friends — a point driven home this week by allegations that Boeing may have been funding a series of op-ed attacks against SpaceX in newspapers across the nation.
Beginning in July, a series of identical or nearly-identical op-ed pieces written by one Richard Hagar began appearing in various publications, including The Washington Times, Florida Today, Albuquerque Journal, the Houston Chronicle, and USA Today, as Ars Technica details. In the pieces, Hagar, who worked for NASA during the Apollo era, argues that NASA is ignoring the safety lessons it should have learned during the Challenger, Columbia, and Apollo I disasters by allowing SpaceX to use a “load and go” fueling procedure that loads the astronauts into the capsule before it’s fueled. While it’s true that SpaceX lost an unmanned rocket that utilized this fueling system, NASA has provisionally certified the company’s launch system — and it isn’t Musk that wrote the rules for that process. Yet the op-ed states:
I suppose for Mr. Musk, inexperience is replacing the abundant safety protocols drilled into us after witnessing the Apollo 1 disaster. Astronaut safety is NASA’s number one priority on any space mission. There is no reason it should not be for private space travel, but commercial space companies like SpaceX play by different rules.
Elon Musk is not writing the rules for astronaut safety. NASA requires that companies that wish to human-rate their vehicles satisfy NASA standards, not the other way around. But the op-ed piece is only the first part of the story. Once Ars contacted the original author, they realized he’d only submitted it to two of the six papers that carried it. The other four submissions were done by individuals affiliated with the Law Media Group, a DC PR firm with a history of placing op-eds in papers without disclosing that they were written on behalf of professional clients. And Boeing is listed first on LMG’s “Featured Narratives,” though the story in question revolves around aircraft, not spacecraft. Ars was unable to contact the CEO of LMG, but the editors of the publications that ran the op-eds confirmed that they were not aware of any potential corporate involvement.
Boeing has refused to comment on the question or any potential involvement with LMG, but we know the firm has clashed with SpaceX before over the question of which of them would be the first to put humans on Mars. There are absolutely questions to be raised about which firms and companies NASA should work with to get back into space, how funding dollars should be spent, and which approaches work best for simultaneously keeping astronauts safe while advancing our exploration of the heavens. But it’s precisely because those decisions are so serious that a steady eye is needed to make them. Broadside corporate attacks aimed at swaying public opinion based on inaccurate arguments regarding who decides when a commercial crew carrier has satisfied safety requirements are not the way to ensure the success of American space exploration.
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