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SpaceX goes to court as US rocket wars begin

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Upstart startup SpaceX, which seems set to overturn every applecart in the space business with its cheap new launchers and capsules, has gone to court after an industry consultant allegedly spread rumours that its rockets were unsafe.

According to SpaceX's filing with the Fairfax County circuit court in Virginia, Joseph Fragola, veep at tech consulting firm Valador, tried to obtain a hefty deal from SpaceX at the beginning of June:

Fragola attempted to obtain a consulting contract from SpaceX worth as much as $1 million. He claimed that SpaceX needed an "independent" analysis of its rocket to bolster its reputation with NASA based on what he called an unfair "perception" about SpaceX. SpaceX did not respond favorably to Fragola's offer.

The rocket company - which as everyone knows is helmed, CTO'd and in part bankrolled by famous nerdwealth kingpin Elon Musk - says it then found out that Fragola had subsequently done his level best to create such a perception:

SpaceX subsequently leamed that Fragola has been contacting officials in the United States Government to make disparaging remarks about SpaceX, which have created the very "perception" that he claimed SpaceX needed his help to rectify.

For instance, in an email he wrote on June 8, 2011, to Bryan O'Connor, a NASA official at NASA's headquarters in Washington, DC, Fragola falsely stated: "I have just heard a rumor, and I am trying now to check its veracity, that the Falcon 9 experienced a double engine failure in the first stage and that the entire stage blew up just after the first stage separated. I also heard that this information was being held from NASA until SpaceX can 'verify' it."

SpaceX for its part says that this rumour is "blatantly false... as a purported 'expert' in the industry, he should have known that the statements were false."

The rocket firm says that two of the nine engines in the Falcon's first stage shut down according to plan ten seconds before the other seven on its most recent flight, in which it carried the firm's "Dragon" capsule successfully into orbit: there was no engine failure. As for the first stage blowing up, its separation was videoed from the Dragon and no explosion occurred. Furthermore, telemetry from the falling first stage carried on uninterrupted as it descended.

SpaceX adds:

Even after being informed that his statements were false, Fragola has continued to contact US Government officials spreading false information about the second Falcon 9 flight.

SpaceX is seeking $1m for defamation from Valador, contending that Fragola's actions were taken on behalf of the consulting firm as part of its operations (SpaceX claims that Fragola used his Valador email account in contacting the various government functionaries). The complete court filing can be read here in pdf courtesy of Courthouse News.

The Valador case follows the recent publication of a vicious attack on SpaceX by Loren Thompson, a well-known aerospace industry mouthpiece who openly admits that he takes money from US mammoth Lockheed. Lockheed is partnered with Boeing in United Launch Alliance, the massive operation which has for years supplied almost all US space lift apart from the Shuttle programme.

Lockheed also runs the multibillion-dollar Orion space capsule programme, which has survived the demise of the "Constellation" moon landing project of which it was part - even though it will probably not go into space until at least the 2020s.

We here on the Reg space desk suggested some time ago that if SpaceX could really do what it says it can, the stage would be set for a vicious battle in which the large rocketry corporations and workforces which the startup threatens would use all the means at their disposal in a bid to protect their business.

Thompson's efforts - and perhaps Fragola's alleged ones - might actually be signs that the established space business is coming to believe that Musk and SpaceX are for real, rather than the reverse. ®

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