Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has had its fair share of issues with the media. With the upcoming launch of the Cassiope mission, a new wrinkle has emerged: Media are currently not permitted to attend the liftoff of this historic flight as guests of SpaceX. Cassiope will be the first non-NASA flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket (excluding the inaugural test flight of the launch vehicle). Liftoff is currently scheduled to take place Sept. 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s (VAFB) Space Launch Complex 4 in California.
SpaceX initially stated the following regarding this decision: “We will likely not host media at this launch, per our customer’s wishes. Sorry about that!”
In an effort to understand why SpaceX access to the launch of the Cassiope communications satellite was more restrictive than those carried out on the behalf of the Department of Defense by other launch service providers, AmericaSpace reached out to MacDonald Dettwiller & Associates Inc. (MDA). Although MDA did not respond, SpaceX’s Christina Ra did contact AmericaSpace to clarify the situation.
According to Ra, this event is an anomaly, one which stems from both the wishes of the customer and SpaceX’s situation at Vandenberg. According to Ra, SpaceX’s facilities at VAFB are currently less-developed than those at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. However, as VAFB is an Air Force installation, the infrastructure to handle the media is established. Indeed, Ra stated later that the Air Force’s Public Affairs Office at Vandenberg would host media per their protocol. Given this is a pivotal launch for SpaceX, it is odd that the Air Force, an entity that has no interest in this particular mission, will apparently be providing a greater level of media access than the two companies directly involved.
Reports have come in that SpaceX will not be allowing them to set up remote cameras at SLC-4, but that VAFB public affairs will escort them to set up remote cameras outside of SLC-4.
AmericaSpace reached out to several established aerospace companies in an effort to determine how unique this situation is. The general answer from these companies was that they consider the media to be an integral part of telling the space flight story and would not restrict media access in such a fashion. They would host the media and would have representatives present for interview, access to information, etc.
While SpaceX might not be directly responsible for this latest issue, as the launch service provider it is unfortunate that such an abnormal situation will take place on this historic mission. It is also not the first time that SpaceX‘s media relations has had problems.
Indeed, even for highly classified launches, such as those conducted for the National Reconnaissance Office and U.S. Military, the media is encouraged to attend. During these launches, the U.S. Air Force and launch service provider for those missions escort media representatives to designated launch viewing sites.
For his part, SpaceX’s Chief Executive Officer Musk has had a well-reported history in his dealings with the media. During the course of researching this article, a journalist with another outlet relayed how they had received a profanity-laced email stating that the journalist’s efforts were outdated and best-suited to NASA and other commercial space companies. Then, of course, there are the issues he has had with the New York Times and Barron’s.
The company’s communications arm has also had a tumultuous history. Between 2010 and 2013, four media relations professionals joined SpaceX and subsequently resigned.
If the restrictions for the launch of Cassiope do turn out to be a one-time event, it is unclear how the company’s internal and external communications will be impacted, if at all. The company has four missions currently scheduled to take place for the remainder of 2013 (Cassiope, SES 8, Thaicom 6, and Orbcomm OG2). Ra stated that after the launch of Cassiope, normal media relations should be restored.
The launch date has slipped further as, according to a report on Spaceflight Now, issues cropped up during a countdown rehearsal test and have caused SpaceX to delay the launch of Cassiope again.