Public-private partnerships in space travel hold much promise, and greater cost-efficiency, but government should be transparent about the risks and inevitable failures.
On Monday, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, conducted a successful launch of a resupply mission to the International Space Station, or ISS, from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with the company's reusable Falcon 9 rocket returning safely to SpaceX's landing zone at Cape Canaveral.
It was the company's 12th resupply mission, and its 14th successful rocket recovery.
SpaceX is one of two companies — Orbital ATK is the other — that stepped into the breach created when NASA ended the Space Shuttle program in July 2011.
Subsequently, Orbital ATK and SpaceX each won contracts through NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program to deliver at least 20 metric tons of cargo to the orbiting ISS.
SpaceX, a Hawthorne-based company founded and headed by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, is the only company deploying reusable space vehicles.
In November, SpaceX will try to launch the Falcon Heavy, a triple-booster rocket with two-thirds of the thrust that the Apollo program's Saturn V rocket used to get to the moon. Musk has warned that the test flight is "risky," and it will be a win if the launch pad isn't damaged or destroyed.
Public-private partnerships can be nerve-wracking for taxpayers.
In June 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 preparing to resupply the space station exploded on the launch pad during fueling for a pre-flight engine test. Last month, NASA announced that it would not publicly release the results of its investigation into the failure.
That was a reversal for NASA, which had earlier promised to release a summary of its investigation. Now the agency says it was "not required to complete a formal final report or public summary" because the flight was under the FAA's jurisdiction.
Another investigation into the Falcon 9 explosion was conducted by a board made up of 10 SpaceX employees and one voting member from the FAA. But an audit by NASA's inspector general warned an investigation run by the contractor "raises questions about inherent conflicts of interest."
Orbital ATK was treated differently regarding the investigation into the explosion of its Antares rocket in October 2014 that destroyed a $51 million load of cargo headed for the ISS. NASA released an executive summary of the investigators' findings a year after the accident.
Unlike a lot of work done by government contractors, this actually is rocket science, and the public should not expect companies engaged in it to have an error rate of zero. But NASA must avoid even the appearance of favoritism or conflict of interest in its dealings with private contractors. To the extent possible with proprietary technology, transparency should be the rule, and not the exception, in any investigation into a technical failure.
The development of commercial spaceflight holds nearly limitless potential for technological advances, economic benefits and high-paying jobs. Public-private partnerships are helping to launch this nascent industry. Oversight and transparency will ensure that the flight stays on course.