On January 7, a U.S. spy satellite launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket failed to reach orbit. We may never know precisely why the billion-dollar spacecraft was lost, but it is a bad omen as Boeing and SpaceX prepare to carry NASA astronauts later this year. The Atlas V that will lift Boeing’s Starliner capsule into orbit has never lost a payload, but January 7 marks the third time that a satellite sitting atop a Falcon 9 has been lost in the last four years, so the fact that Falcon 9 will soon be carrying astronauts has to raise concerns. Two recent government reports add to the worries. The Pentagon’s inspector general found many more major deviations from quality standards at SpaceX than at competitor United Launch Alliance, and a NASA advisory body raised pointed questions about the Falcon 9’s design and planned fueling procedures. The House Science, Space & Technology Committee will hold hearings on NASA’s commercial crew program this Wednesday, and last week’s latest loss of a Falcon 9 payload will undoubtedly figure in the exchanges. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.
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