Monday, October 15 , 2018, 3:10 pm | Fair 73º


Veronique de Rugy: SpaceX and Uncle Sam Shrug Off Billion-Dollar Blame Game

Did you know that the government doesn't insure the cargo it sends into space? That means that when a satellite carrying government cargo explodes during or after launch, taxpayers are left footing the entire bill.

This issue has become topical with the recent loss of a Northrop Grumman satellite launched by Elon Musk's privately owned company, SpaceX, earlier this month.

Shooting a satellite into orbit is obviously inherently risky; however, that is all the more reason to protect taxpayers when the federal government contracts with private companies like Musk's.

We know little about the contract or the mission of the launch itself because that information is classified. What we do know for sure is that on Jan. 7, a top-secret satellite (code-named "Zuma") was launched on one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets.

Though the rocket didn't explode upon launch this time (something that has happened twice in recent years), the satellite — which is rumored to have cost upward of $3 billion — seemingly failed to maintain orbit and is believed to have ended up in the Indian Ocean.

About the only other thing we know is that taxpayers will eat the loss. In fact, because the mission was classified, we can only speculate as to which government agency was responsible for the mission, not to mention what went wrong.

When questioned by a Bloomberg News reporter, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White responded, "I would have to refer you to SpaceX, who conducted the launch."

When SpaceX officials were questioned, they announced that they were as pleased as punch with their performance. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell noted, "After review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night."

In other words, it's someone else's fault.

Shifting the blame onto others fits the pattern of SpaceX officials. In its previous failures, the company blamed explosions on faulty parts supplied by other contractors.

Shotwell added, "If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately."

But those words are not reassuring, given that the classified nature of the mission could help SpaceX obfuscate responsibility — especially if enabled by the federal agency responsible for the mission.

Indeed, NASA refused to disclose to the public any of its findings after the 2015 explosion of a Falcon 9, which destroyed $118 million worth of taxpayer-financed cargo.

One might conclude that for whatever reason, the government agencies that contract with SpaceX are afraid of making the company look bad.

According to a source of mine in the government's space launch universe, SpaceX is viewed as being able to "get away with murder."

Perhaps Musk's extraordinary connections in Washington (his companies have received billions of dollars in subsidies and government contracts) have enabled more favorable terms. Or perhaps the bureaucrats who negotiated and signed the contract set taxpayers up for the fall because, hey, it isn't their money — and it isn't as if the government agency they work for will go out of business.

Nobody expects every attempt to expand our presence in space to be free of mistakes and complications. However, taxpayers are owed an account of what went wrong when these missions fail — even in cases in which the payload is of a classified nature.

Indeed, the need for oversight and accountability with government contracts will take on added importance because SpaceX is expected to carry astronauts to the International Space Station in the near future.

Sadly, the lack of transparency works to the favor of a Congress uninterested in putting America's fiscal house in order.

After all, it's hard to shame the ruling political class into action when citizens have no idea what's actually being done with their money.

— Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a columnist for Reason magazine and the Washington Examiner, and blogs about ecomomics for National Review. Click here to contact her, and follow her on Twitter: @veroderugy. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >