It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Burning Payload? – What Mission Failure Teaches Us About Accountability

Take my advice: if you can avoid it, don’t piss-off the SpaceX fans.

Tuesday evening, I wrote about the launch of a classified satellite payload, codenamed Zuma, that appears to have failed to reach orbit. This was published as Wednesday’s Daily Intel. The intent, lost on almost everyone on Twitter, was to show that even in the U.S., with arguably the finest scientists, engineers, and project managers at our disposal, Mr. Murphy gets a vote. Rocket launches go wrong. It’s important to bear this in mind, I said, when evaluating the reliability of the North Korean missile program. I stand by that assessment.

But I called it a “SpaceX failure,” and that’s what had gotten me into trouble in the Twitterverse. In the interest of fairness and clarity (and since this is too involved to discuss 280 characters at a time) let’s review the record, and then discuss the government’s views on accountability vs. responsibility.

Textbook launch, then… what?

As I said on Wednesday, SpaceX reported that from their perspective everything had gone according to plan. But still, the mission appears to have failed.

We say “appears,” because no one but SpaceX is talking on-the-record, and given the highly classified nature of the payload (we don’t even know which Three-Letter Agency owns it), even it has never directly confirmed or denied whether or not the satellite is or is not in orbit.

The most we have is the company’s carefully worded statements that its rocket “did everything correctly on Sunday night,” and that “the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed,” nor does the company “anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule.”

Translation: the satellite is not in its proper orbit. Maybe it’s too high, maybe it’s too low, maybe it’s tumbling uncontrollably, maybe, as most people theorize, it failed to separate from the Falcon 9’s second stage and burned up along with it on reentry.

But one government official and two congressional aides confirmed almost immediately to Bloomberg News that the satellite was indeed lost. For the record, I know Tony Capaccio, one of the Bloomberg reporters who filed the story. He has been covering the Pentagon from a business perspective since 1986, and for Bloomberg for the last 20 years. I’ve never known him to get it wrong. So we’ll start from the position that the mission failed.

Who was responsible for what?

Let us assume that commenters are correct when they insist that Northrop Grumman, the company who built the satellite and the connector to attach it to the Falcon 9’s second stage, did its work out of SpaceX’s sight. Let us assume they are correct that Northrop Grumman delivered little more than a sealed black box to Cape Canaveral to be mounted on the Falcon 9.

Even if, as many have claimed, SpaceX employees weren’t allowed to see what was inside the fairing, someone was responsible for inspecting all the pieces after they were assembled and certifying that the whole assembly was ready for launch. I’m not an expert on space launches by any stretch (a fact not-so-sublty pointed out to me again and again on Twitter) but I am an expert in military procedures generally. That lifetime of understanding tells me that without a doubt, someone signed on the proverbial dotted line before the government assented to launch.

I fully understand that even when you’ve double, triple, and quadruple-checked everything, sometimes things still go south. But when a jet fighter crashes or a tank breaks down on the side of the road, and investigators later determine that faulty preventive maintenance or pre-operations inspections were to blame, the guy who signed the inspection sheet is on the hook.

This is where SpaceX will find itself in trouble, no matter what the Twitter commenters insist.

It may have been Northrop Grumman’s satellite. It may have been Northrop Grumman’s connector attaching that satellite to SpaceX’s rocket. Northrop Grumman may even have been the one who mounted the combined payload and fairing onto the Falcon 9’s second stage.

That makes them responsible. And if they assumed the risk in writing for mating the payload to the Falcon 9 with a piece of hardware that SpaceX wasn’t comfortable using, I concede that could be the end of the discussion.

But ultimately, it was SpaceX’s launch. And that makes them accountable for success or failure.

As I briefly alluded to Wednesday, SpaceX is fighting the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, for the government’s business. SpaceX and Elon Musk constitute, to quote Iridium Communications CEO and SpaceX customer Matt Desch, a “disrupter” in this business.

SpaceX has owned its previous mistakes, has learned from them, and has improved because of them. But despite that, there are two indisputable facts.

First, SpaceX has now been the launcher of two failed government missions — Zuma, and the 2015 mission to resupply the International Space Station which disintegrated shortly after liftoff.

ULA may be a creature of the military-industrial complex. But the second indisputable fact is that since 2006, ULA has launched about 120 government missions and has not lost a single payload.

That matters to the people who award government contracts. Sure, it’s fun to quote John Glenn, who is said to have remarked, “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind — every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.” It’s funny, but it isn’t true. Contracts like launching satellites, let alone humans, are awarded on the basis of “best value,” not “lowest price, technically acceptable.” (Quick question: do you think SpaceX buys parts based on which supplier is cheapest, or which supplier makes the best part?) That distinction allows contracting officers to consider factors like past performance in their awards.

And when everything else is considered, to the government, particularly the military, accountability is different from responsibility.

Responsibility vs. accountability

After two collisions and a grounding in the Navy’s 7th Fleet last summer, its commander, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, was relieved of his duties “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.” This happened before the investigation into the collision of the USS John S. McCain had barely even begun.

Here’s what the civilian defenders of SpaceX fail to understand. Admiral Aucoin was not responsible for training the junior officers and enlisted crew who stood watch on the ships that crashed. He was not responsible for ensuring that the ship’s radars, transponders and other anti-collision equipment were turned on or functioning properly. He was not responsible for ensuring that the ship’s engine and rudder controls were properly maintained. He did not select the crewmembers for duty on the nights of the accidents. He wasn’t responsible for the curriculum at the Surface Warfare School where they were supposed to have learned their trade. He was not even within a thousand miles of the accidents when they happened.

But he was out of a job before anyone had a clear picture of what did happen. That is how the military views accountability. In the end, the commander is accountable for everything that happens under his command.

I am not a SpaceX critic. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. I’d go so far as to call myself an Elon Musk fan. I think competition is good for government contracting in general, and space launches in particular. ULA should not have a monopoly on the government’s space business. I’d be thrilled to see even more Space 2.0 companies trying to get a piece of the government’s action.

But taking government money means accepting the government’s rules. Most civilians would be shocked to learn just how risk-averse the Department of Defense, an organization whose primary mission is to blow stuff up, break stuff, and kill people, can be in real life.

Accepting that you will be held accountable for success or failure, even for events beyond your control, is part-and-parcel of military life, as it is (most times) for government contracting.