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Was SpaceX’s Rocket Sabotaged?

October 1, 2016, 4:55 PM UTC
File photo of an explosion on the launch site of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is shown in this still image from video in Cape Canaveral
An explosion on the launch site of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is shown in this still image from video in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. September 1, 2016. U.S. Launch Report/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. MANDATORY CREDIT - RTX2OPRL
© Handout . / Reuters REUTERS

The Washington Post yesterday outlined a previously unreported interaction between SpaceX and competing company United Launch Alliance. In the Post’s words, the event amounts to an “implication of sabotage” in the September 1st explosion of a SpaceX rocket being prepared for launch.

Even the implication of sabotage, we should say right up front, seems a bit of a stretch based on what the Post reports. According to unnamed industry sources, SpaceX officials saw an unusual shadow and a white object on the roof of a building owned by ULA, near the Cape Canaveral launch site where the doomed Falcon 9 had been preparing for launch.

When SpaceX asked ULA for access to the roof to investigate further, ULA denied that access, but called in the Air Force to inspect the roof. Those investigators found nothing of note.

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said the investigation into the explosion has proven extremely challenging, calling it “the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years.” Some aspects of the incident were, at the very least, mysterious.

Musk has said SpaceX considered sabotage as a possible factor in the explosion, and the Post strongly implies that someone at SpaceX considers ULA a suspect. The roof location, the Post writes, has “a clear line of sight” to the location of the Falcon 9 explosion. The Post further emphasizes that ULA and SpaceX are rivals for government contracts, hinting at the idea that ULA had motive for interfering with its competitor.

That’s a lot of maybes. And SpaceX itself is deflecting the idea that it suspects ULA, emphasizing in a statement that they have “an obligation to consider all possible causes of the anomaly.” Looking into unusual video footage doesn’t necessarily imply any particular suspicions on their part.

But there is another layer here: The ‘implication of sabotage’ narrative works in SpaceX’s favor. Even the suggestion that the explosion of one of its rockets might have been caused by an outsider with ill intent draws attention away from any failure on the company’s own part. And the perception that SpaceX may have somehow screwed up is already threatening its relationships with partners like satellite operator SpaceCom and Facebook.

For more on SpaceX, watch our video.

It forces us to wonder: Were the anonymous “industry sources” who relayed these events to the Post connected with SpaceX? Because it would certainly be in the company’s interest to redirect blame—even if only by implication.