NASA has ordered a review of workplace safety at SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies developing spaceships to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station, in the wake of a video showing SpaceX CEO Elon Musk smoking pot and drinking whiskey on a YouTube talk show.
The safety review, first reported by The Washington Post, could involve site inspections and hundreds of interviews. It’s not yet clear whether the review could hold up the first crewed demonstration flights of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner capsule. Those flights are currently scheduled for June and August of 2019, respectively, but that schedule could well slip due to technical snags.
SpaceX is planning to launch an uncrewed Crew Dragon to the space station on Jan. 7, and if no further technical or logistical delays are encountered, that flight will go ahead even if the safety review isn’t completed by that time. The same could be said for Boeing’s uncrewed demonstration flight, currently planned for next March.
NASA didn’t immediately respond to inquiries from GeekWire about the Washington Post report. But the Post’s Christian Davenport quoted unnamed sources asi saying the review was prompted by Musk’s recent behavior, including a September appearance on a webcast during which he sipped on a glass of whiskey and took a hit off a marijuana joint offered by talk-show host Joe Rogan.
That behavior reportedly rankled some high-level officials at NASA and sparked a call to scrutinize the workplace environment at SpaceX as well as at Boeing. Like other federal agencies, NASA requires a drug-free, alcohol-free workplace environment.
“If I see something that’s inappropriate, the key concern to me is what is the culture that led to that inappropriateness and is NASA involved in that,” the Post quoted NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine as saying. “As an agency we’re not just leading ourselves, but our contractors, as well. We need to show the American public that when we put an astronaut on a rocket, they’ll be safe.”
The safety review would be led by NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, which is responsible for checking compliance with NASA’s workplace policies.
Boeing said it was aware of and welcomed NASA’s workplace assessment but had not yet received official notification. In an emailed statement, Boeing said it was confident NASA would give a thumbs-up to its workplace culture:
“The culture at Boeing ensures the integrity, safety and quality of our products, our people and their work environment,. As NASA’s trusted partner since the beginning of human spaceflight, we share the same values and are committed to continuing our legacy of trust, openness and mission success.”
SpaceX voiced similar confidence in its own emailed statement:
“Human spaceflight is the core mission of our company. There is nothing more important to SpaceX than this endeavor, and we take seriously the responsibility that NASA has entrusted in us to safely and reliably carry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station. For years, our engineers have worked side-by-side with NASA, creating a strong partnership and guiding the development of Crew Dragon — one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built. In addition, SpaceX actively promotes workplace safety and we are confident that our comprehensive drug-free workforce and workplace programs exceed all applicable contractual requirements. We couldn’t be more proud of all that we have already accomplished together with NASA, and we look forward to returning human spaceflight capabilities to the United States for the first time since the space shuttle program retired in 2011.”
Both SpaceX and Boeing say they’re on track to meet the current schedules for demonstration flights to the space station, after years of work and billions of dollars in NASA funding. However, such schedules have slipped to the right numerous times over the years, and in a series of reports, the Government Accountability Office has voiced concerns about further slippage.
Update for 9:58 a.m. Nov. 21: This report has been updated with word that the first uncrewed flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to the International Space Station is scheduled for launch on Jan. 7.