Report: Rep. Coffman wants government to handle SpaceX explosion investigation

4 min. read

SpaceX's Falcon 9 sits on a launch pad in Cape Canaveral in 2015. (SpaceX/Flickr)

Rep. Mike Coffman penned a letter Thursday requesting government agencies take over SpaceX’s investigation of the recent Falcon 9 explosion.

The letter, signed by nine other House Republicans, comes amid rumors of suspected sabotage, according to a report by the Washington Post.

Let’s recap:

In May 2015, the U.S. Air Force certified SpaceX to launch national security payloads. The settlement came on the heels of SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk’s lawsuit against the Defense Department. The suit alleged improper contracting and effectively ended a close to decade-long, national security monopoly by SpaceX’s biggest competitor, Centennial-based United Launch Alliance, Quartz reported.

ULA fired its CEO and hired Tory Bruno, who swore to compete with SpaceX.

While the certification marked an important milestone for SpaceX, a series of incidents in the following 15 months stunted progress.

On June 28 2015, just a month and two days after SpaceX received its national security certification, an in-flight explosion destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its payload, supplies intended for the International Space Station. The cause of the explosion was determined to be a faulty strut.

Slightly more than a year later, during routine prelaunch testing on Sept. 1 2016, a Falcon 9 rocket and Spacecom’s close to $200 million payload burst into flame, due to an “anomaly” on the launchpad.

SpaceX has since been leading an investigation into the cause of the accident, assisted by the Air Force, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration. Investigators have narrowed in on a breach in the secondary helium system as probable cause. Musk has described this setback as  “the most difficult and complex” in the company’s 14-year history.

Hence the investigation.

According to the Washington Post, a SpaceX employee requested access to the roof of one of ULA’s buildings, located about one mile away from the Cape Canaveral launch pad where the rocket exploded. Industry insiders told the Post that the employee explained the maneuver as a method of running down all possible leads, cordially.

Insiders say SpaceX suspects sabotage.

Previously, Musk had requested the public submit any videos and audio recordings of the blast to assist the investigation.

Insiders say SpaceX now has stills from a video that show a shadow, then a white spot on the roof of that same ULA building. ULA ultimately denied SpaceX’s request to access the building, but called in Air Force investigators who didn’t find anything linked to the explosion, officials told the Post.

At a conference in Mexico, the Washington Post reported, Musk said the cause of the explosion is still unknown. 

“We’ve eliminated all of the obvious possibilities for what occurred there,” he said. “So what remains are the less probable answers.”

When asked whether something may have hit the rocket, Musk tweeted, “We have not ruled that out.”

Back to Rep. Coffman.

On Sept. 29, Coffman wrote a letter suggesting SpaceX back off, Business Insider reported.

Nine House Republicans cosigned the document, which ultimately aims to prevent SpaceX from leading the Falcon 9 explosion investigation.

(Since no one was hurt in the explosion, SpaceX has the right under federal law to investigate.)

In the letter, Coffman recommends NASA and the Air Force replace SpaceX to "ensure that proper investigative engineering rigor is applied and and that the outcomes are sufficient to prevent NASA and military launch mishaps in the future."

He takes ample opportunity to disparage SpaceX's technical and manufacturing rigor throughout the four page letter, and even questions the Air Force's decision to certify the Falcon 9 for national security missions.

Coffman has a vested interest in ULA's affairs.
Rep. Mike Coffman speaks in an anti-Trump ad. (YouTube/Mike Coffman for Congress)

He hails from the 6th district in Colorado, home of United Launch Alliance, and is a member of the House Armed Services subcommittee, which oversees military spacecraft.

In the past, Coffman has accepted campaign donations totaling to $51,800 from Lockheed Martin (a partner in ULA alongside Boeing).

And, of course, he faces reelection this year.

Multimedia business & healthcare reporter Chloe Aiello can be reached via email at [email protected] or

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