SpaceX Defamation Lawsuit Against Safety Expert Settled

SpaceX has settled a defamation suit it filed against a prominent safety expert who had inquired about rumored problems that occurred during the most recent Falcon 9 flight. In a joint statement issued today, the parties involved said:

Since SpaceX filed its lawsuit (captioned Space Exploration Technologies Corp. v. Valador, Inc. and Joseph Fragola, Civil Action No. 2011-08756, Circuit Court of Fairfax County, Virginia), the Parties have been working collaboratively to resolve the matter. Regarding the underlying facts, Dr. Fragola investigated a rumor regarding the performance of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle during its most recent launch. Through email communications with both NASA and SpaceX on June 8, 2011, Dr. Fragola confirmed that the rumor was false in that no Falcon 9 engines failed and the first stage did not explode. There was independent NASA tracking and video of the flight, and subsequent debriefing with NASA, indicating no such failure, indicating no such failures or explosions.

The Parties regret any misunderstanding or misinterpretation resulting either from the investigation of the rumor or from statements concerning the possible motives for that investigation. The Parties have mutually agreed to resolve their differences and to terminate the lawsuit and any potential counterclaims over this matter. The Parties remain jointly committed to excellence in the continued development of aerospace technology in the industry as a whole.

The “statements concerning the possible motives for the investigation” phrase is interesting. In its lawsuit, SpaceX accused Fragola of spreading false rumors in order to drum up business for his consulting firm.

Early in June 2011, on behalf of Valador 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.

SpaceX subsequently learned that Fragola — within the scope of his employment at Valador, and by using his email account at Valador — 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.

I’m not sure what this lawsuit accomplished. The rumor wasn’t publicly known. It was easily refutable. There was no reason that NASA officials to be concerned since they had their own tracking data to refute it. How was SpaceX harmed when both the company and NASA were able to refute a rumor that only became public after the lawsuit?

The only serious harm I see here is to Fragola. SpaceX has raised serious questions in public about the integrity of an independent safety expert. Expressing subsequent regret over “any misunderstanding or misinterpretation” over Fragola’s motives only partly undoes that damage. The tint of motives not pure is out there. A cloud will hang over anything that he or his firm might say in the future about the safety of SpaceX’s rockets. Or anyone else’s systems, for that matter.