Equal protection before the law is a cornerstone of American democracy and an important reason why our country is the economic powerhouse it is today. This principle has allowed innovation and free markets to flourish, but when it is ignored, it often leads to the kind of crony capitalism that undermines confidence in our capitalist system.
Why then does the government continue to allow one contractor to disregard America's national security and public safety standards as they pursue their business interests? This has been the question of the month for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which continues to probe federal agencies and management officials for answers.
In a recent letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the committee's leadership stated that it was "disappointed" in regulators for allowing rocket company SpaceX off the hook before implementing adequate corrective action for a test launch it conducted at the end of last year that violated its launch license.
In December, the FAA denied SpaceX's request for a waiver to exceed maximum public safety risk. The company launched the rocket anyway, only to watch it catch fire and explode (as did three more Starship rockets after it, including one as recently as March 30.)
One would think this type of action would be grounds for suspending the company's launch license, hitting it with monetary penalties, or — at the very least — subjecting it to a lengthy federal investigation. Unfortunately, however, it seems the only real consequence the FAA gave SpaceX is a request for an internal, company-run investigation and a few new oversight requirements.
As an isolated incident, the FAA's response to the SpaceX's disregard of the law is cause for concern; however, the FAA's response isn't an isolated incident. For reasons that are unclear, government bodies for years now have appeared more than comfortable allowing the company to skirt regulations.
Take SpaceX's 2015 rocket explosion, for example. NASA initially declined to release a public summary of the report, as is the precedent at the agency. This effectively allowing the findings of a SpaceX-run investigation (which blamed an outside supplier) to be perceived as fact in the eyes of the public.
This double standard led to disapproval from Congress, which prompted then-House Science Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to send a strongly worded letter to NASA. In 2018, three years after the incident, pressure from Congress finally caused NASA to relent. The agency released a public report that ultimately pointed the blame at SpaceX.
In sharp contrast to the SpaceX-run investigation, NASA's report concluded that: "SpaceX chose to use an industrial grade (as opposed to aerospace grade) [precipitation-hardening stainless steel] cast part… [and] the implementation was done without adequate screening or testing of the industrial-grade part ... and without proper modeling or adequate load testing of the part under predicted flight conditions."
In short, SpaceX made a critical error that led to the rocket explosion, and the company probably should not have been allowed to continue operating without new agency-imposed safeguards in place
And yet, despite the fact that there were clearly shortcomings in the internal investigation of the 2015 incident, the FAA is allowing SpaceX — the same company that previously violated protocol — to once again effectively lead the examination into its most recent explosion. It seems that no matter how many safety standards or regulations the company fails to abide by, faceless bureaucrats in Washington consistently continue to look the other way.
Congress has urged the FAA to reverse course and implement "a strict policy to deal with violations of FAA launch and reentry licenses." America should applaud the representatives who are leading this charge. Hopefully, it will cause the agency to buckle down and enforce tighter accountability standards, just as past congressional pressure appeared to do to NASA. However, Congress should also consider taking even stronger action to get this problem under control.
Congress should compel NASA and the FAA to enforce its safety standards as vigorously as possible to ensure the public is never again put in harm's way. Furthermore, it should study the emerging commercial sector and explore changes to oversight that better meet the industry's evolving needs and ensure that all companies compete on an equal playing field.
Most importantly, Congress needs to understand why one contractor has received what appears to be preferential treatment in the face of several infractions. America's regulatory bodies work best when there is fair enforcement. If they don't start enforcing the rules equally across all companies, they have no hope of maintaining any sort of order. And that is unquestionably bad for America.
Travis Korson is a veteran of politics with years of experience in campaigns, communications, and public policy. He previously served in the Bush White House and has also spent time at various conservative organizations and government institutions including the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and the Faith and Freedom Coalition. He is a graduate of the George Washington University where he studied International Affairs with a focus on International Economics. Read Travis Korson's Reports — More Here.
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