The Curious Case of SpaceX and Forbes’ Thompson Takedown

Image Credit: SpaceX

One of the most reliable outlets for attacks on SpaceX over the years has somewhat curiously been from Forbes, with a semi-regular stream of articles penned by Loren Thompson, a paid consultant for Lockheed Martin and other legacy aerospace companies. Ostensibly writing on behalf of the non-profit Lexington Institute where he is listed as the Chief Operating Officer, Thompson’s pieces on SpaceX over the years have allowed companies who see it as threat to get in a few shots protected by the thin veneer of an outside party with (some) credibility as a defense analyst.

Based on a lead-in still present on the Lexington Institute website for an article which has since been pulled from the Forbes website, that credibility should be rapidly evaporating. A copy of the complete article is here (courtesy of NASAWatch.)

In writing of SpaceX and NASA’s COTS program, Thompson states:

“However, it failed to launch any missions in 2011 and has only executed one per year in 2012, 2013 and 2014 (a second mission may occur in 2014).”

Thompson begins with the highly pejorative  SpaceX “failed to launch any missions in 2011” when in fact, SpaceX, working with NASA on additional risk reduction  milestones under the COTS program, did not attempt to conduct any launches.  A significant difference made all the more relevant due to the context.  The risk reduction funding, which Orbital Sciences also received, was requested because NASA’s Constellation program, years overdue and billions over budget, was canceled, leaving NASA with no choice but to rely solely on its new commercial partners for supplying the International Space Station.  With that changing perspective, NASA deemed it prudent to invest a little more time and money in securing a positive outcome.  Based on the sterling results posted by both SpaceX and OSC, it was a wise decision.

The second part of the sentence is either deliberately misleading or simply dead wrong. Whereas Thompson states SpaceX executed only one mission per year in 2012, 2013 and 2014,  in fact, the company made two flights to ISS in 2012. The historic first mission, conducted under the COTS program took place in May of that year, followed by the first conducted under the separate Commercial Resupply Program (CRS) in October. While 2013 saw only one station re-supply mission, that of the problematic but ultimately successful CRS-2 launch in March, the six month hiatus in SpaceX launches was for the qualification and introduction of a radically upgraded booster in the Falcon 9 V 1.1.  That success was followed by the first commercial comsat launch from the U.S. in years, and the return of American competitiveness in such high profile industry.

As for the snarky “a second mission may occur in 2014,” he may have meant to say  “third,”  considering the fact that the fourth and fifth SpaceX missions under the CRS program are scheduled for September and December respectively. Perhaps not surprisingly, the clearly confused critic fails to mention the fact that SpaceX is using each of the LEO space station re-supply missions to test a flyback re-usable first stage.

The rest of Thompson’s piece continues in the same vein, a mishmash of distortions and outright errors combine with an occasional fact.  In fact, the entire presentation is basically a repeat of two pieces (part II) Thompson wrote for Forbes in 2011,  which was then countered with an epic takedown by then SpaceX spokesperson Bobby Block.

Therein might be the reason for this the sudden removal of the latest piece, Forbes’ desire to avoid giving SpaceX a forum for yet another response. On the other hand, perhaps it is starting to dawn on the ever skeptical Forbes that if nothing else, SpaceX, like Tesla, represents an American success story of the type which is generally embraced by those on the right wing of the American political spectrum.  Then again, considering the gross errors contained in the Thompson piece, the retraction may be just good editorial judgment. Either way, it makes for an interesting subplot in remaining days leading up the impending decision regarding NASA’s Commercial Crew program.

SpaceX, is an imperfect company which is attempting amazing things, some of which threaten the financial position of large aerospace contractors who seem to be all too comfortable with the appalling stagnation of the U.S. space program. SpaceX, like any company which puts itself in the public spotlight, is going to attract its share of critics, as well it should. Surely by this point however, and in respect to what it has accomplished thus far, SpaceX at least deserves a better class of critic.

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3 Comments on "The Curious Case of SpaceX and Forbes’ Thompson Takedown"

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  1. Dick Eagleson says:

    SpaceX at least deserves a better class of critic.

    Agreed. But, to paraphrase Rumsfeld, you go to war with the critics you have, not the one’s you wish you had. 🙂

  2. It should be noted that SpaceX launches when the customer wants. The Obama administration added STS-135 in July 2011 to bring up enough supplies to last nearly a year until the May 2012 demo flight was ready. They didn’t launch in 2011 because the customer didn’t want them to launch in 2011.

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