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Sat, Dec. 07

Column | Is SpaceX’s reputation going up in smoke?

It’s not entirely clear what went wrong with Musk’s rocket company SpaceX’s recent test of its Crew Dragon launch vehicle, but something did. The smoke sent billowing upwards into Florida’s warm spring air earlier this week suggests the problem was something major.

The details are scarce. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called the incident an “anomaly.” Others have speculated an explosion within the Crew Dragon capsule might have caused the mishap. Both SpaceX and NASA have been reticent to discuss the incident and for a good reason: it makes things look very bad for SpaceX.

The company’s tight-lipped response downplays its severity. The Crew Dragon, which was expected to undertake in its first crewed flight before the end of the year, likely faces further delays following what everyone must agree is a setback. Without knowing the cause of the apparent explosion, it will be difficult to gauge the full impact of the accident. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the near-ubiquitous images of billowing smoke that circulated globally online are a PR nightmare for SpaceX.

This isn’t the first time SpaceX’s credibility as a NASA contractor has been called into question. Unfortunately for founder Elon Musk, his aerospace company has a storied history of costly mistakes, each of which burns an increasing number of holes in the firm’s claims of reliability and quality.

It’s kind of trite to point out that where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. Yet, where space exploration is concerned, it’s not the kind of thing that can be taken lightly. Remember that, in November 2017, SpaceX’s experimental rocket Falcon 9 exploded during a key test in McGregor, Texas.

In the aftermath of that disaster, a safety review by the Inspector General found that SpaceX’s quality standards were not up to snuff. The inspection found a substantial number of major and minor nonconformities. The nonconformities, 75 in total, indicated a serious deficit of quality control from Musk’s company and were undoubtedly a red flag for the rest of the private aerospace community upon which the country is counting to keep the United States active in the next generation race to space.

While a different company may have taken the IG report as an impetus for change, SpaceX’s problems with the standards and safety of its rockets persisted. In May 2018, NASA advisors warned that SpaceX’s rocket technology constituted a severe safety risk since its “load-and-go” approach to fueling could accidentally spark and set off a catastrophic explosion. As SpaceX’s problems continue to mount, so do the growing disquiet surrounding SpaceX’s future launches - especially those transporting America’s national security payloads.

Perhaps due to the increasing unease with which America’s national security community viewed SpaceX, the Inspector General decided to begin a second investigation into the aerospace firm. On February 11, 2019, the Pentagon announced that it was launching an evaluation of SpaceX’s launch certification as an Air Force contractor. While the Department of Defense’s IG investigation is still ongoing, the implications and speculation surrounding the presence of the report itself has already done substantial damage to SpaceX’s reputation.

Unfortunately for Musk, the Crew Dragon’s most recent anomalous behavior will likely only worsen the situation. Since SpaceX’s inception, Elon Musk has been trying to shake the perception that his company’s products are a high-risk liability. But as the public, costly, and concerning mistakes continue to pile up, the increasingly negative view of SpaceX becomes harder to overcome.

After all, it’s easy to see when a company’s reputation is on fire. The smoke tends to give it away.

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