Musk’s Behavior Triggers NASA Safety Review of SpaceX & Boeing

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

The Washington Post reports NASA safety reviews of its two commercial crew providers was triggered by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s use of drugs and alcohol.

The review, to begin next year, would look at both Boeing and SpaceX, the companies under contract to fly NASA’s astronauts, and examine “everything and anything that could impact safety” as the companies prepare to fly humans for the first time, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

The review was prompted by the recent behavior of SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, according to three officials with knowledge of the probe, after he took a hit of marijuana and sipped whiskey on a podcast streamed on the Internet. That rankled some at NASA’s highest levels and prompted the agency to take a close look at the culture of the companies, the people said.

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs declined to comment on what prompted the review. But in a statement, he said it would “ensure the companies are meeting NASA’s requirements for workplace safety, including the adherence to a drug-free environment.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview that the agency wants to make sure the public has confidence in its human-spaceflight program, especially as the companies are getting closer to their first flights, scheduled for next year.

There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth among Musk supporters since the reviews were revealed yesterday. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Federal contracts have anti-drug workplace provisions in them. While it is legal to use marijuana in California, where Musk smoked it, the drug is still illegal under federal law.
  • There have been public allegations that Musk’s drug use goes far beyond pot to include LSD, cocaine and ecstasy. (For the Azealia Banks/Grimes lost weekend saga, see this story.) Musk, in fact, joked about using crack cocaine in order to work long hours without sleeping. He has also admitted to using Ambien, a legal prescription drug, in order to sleep.
  • Claims of him using LSD, cocaine and ecstasy are unverified. But, it’s a good bet that NASA is aware of the claims and that it has concerns about them, even if the space agency doesn’t say so publicly.
  • Musk’s behavior this year has been erratic. He has gotten into Twitter fights with journalists and others, accused a diver involved in the Thai cave rescue of being a pedophile, and claimed he had funding to take Tesla Motors private when he had, at best, a verbal commitment but nothing in writing. The latter claim earned him a three-year ban in serving as Tesla chairman and $40 million in fins for him and the company.

Oh, and one more thing: yes, Russian quality control has been lacking recently, what with the Soyuz abort and the hole drilled in the side of the orbital module. NASA has (a) no choice but to keep using the Soyuz right now, and (b) limited influence over another nation’s space program.

NASA does have control over commercial crew, for which it is paying the vast majority of the cost. So, it is moving to try to improve quality control where it can do so.

My guess is that although federal contracts have anti-drug provisions, the government probably overlooks a lot of things as long as it doesn’t become a public or obvious problem. Musk’s behavior seems to have crossed a line.

NASA’s safety reviews seem like yet another self inflicted wound for Musk and SpaceX. He hasn’t done Boeing any favors, either Both companies have to deal with reviews while trying to launch two flight tests each of their commercial crew spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Perhaps these reviews will be a waste of time. Maybe they will find problems that when corrected will lead to improvements in both programs. Time will tell.