The story of NASA’s efforts to restore the country’s ability to launch American astronauts into space from U.S. soil has just gained a rather interesting new chapter.
NASA has decided to conduct reviews of SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies the agency hired to develop astronaut-transportation systems that would allow the United States to fly crewed missions from its own launchpads for the first time since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.
The reviews, scheduled to begin next year, will assess not the companies’ technical development or their progress, but rather their workplace safety culture. Why? Reportedly, because SpaceX CEO Elon Musk smoked some weed and drank whiskey on a podcast two months ago.
The Washington Post, which first reported the upcoming assessments on Tuesday, said Musk’s behavior on the show, The Joe Rogan Experience, “rankled some at NASA’s highest levels and prompted the agency to take a close look at the culture of the companies.”
NASA declined to say whether Musk’s appearance on the show indeed prompted the reviews, but statements from the involved parties to The Atlantic strongly suggest it played some part.
In a statement, NASA said, “[The agency] will be conducting a cultural assessment study in coordination with our commercial partners to ensure the companies are meeting NASA’s requirements for workplace safety, including the adherence to a drug-free environment.”
For its part, SpaceX said it “actively promotes workplace safety and we are confident that our comprehensive drug-free workforce and workplace programs exceed all applicable contractual requirements.”
And Boeing, which is probably wondering what on earth it has to do with this, said it “does maintain a drug- and alcohol-free workplace program. We do this so that we can promote a safe, healthy, and productive work environment, and that program does meet NASA’s and the Department of Defense’s contractor requirements.” (A Boeing spokesperson said NASA did not give a reason for the review and has not provided many details on the process.)
The first test flights with astronauts—which have already been selected—are scheduled for summer 2019 at the earliest. The new review could delay the effort, which has already been set back by technical problems and overly optimistic schedules. According to The Post, the review will be a “months-long assessment that would involve hundreds of interviews designed to assess the culture of the workplaces.”
The Rogan podcast was recorded in California, where recreational use of marijuana is legal. But the federal government still considers marijuana a controlled substance, like heroin and cocaine. And NASA’s contracts with SpaceX and Boeing for the commercial crew program require both contractors to “maintain a program for achieving a drug-and alcohol-free workforce” and conduct “preemployment, reasonable suspicion, random, post-accident, and periodic recurring testing of contractor employees in sensitive positions for use, in violation of applicable law or federal regulation, of alcohol or a controlled substance.”
There is no word on whether Musk was drug-tested after the podcast, but, according to the environment NASA requires of SpaceX, the company certainly would have had “reasonable suspicion.”
In this context, in which SpaceX is a contractor of NASA, officials’ apparent displeasure with Musk’s actions makes some sense. Perhaps for government officials, it is not Musk’s casual use of marijuana that unnerved them, but instead the very public use of it, in a video that gained more than 2 million views in less than a day, months before his company was expected to launch human beings into space using taxpayer dollars.
“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,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, told The Post. “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.”
From this perspective, NASA’s decision to admonish Musk in some capacity may seem wise. Whether Musk’s actions warrant a lengthy and large-scale review of hundreds of employees, at not one but two companies, is another question.
There’s the obvious consideration: Yes, Musk is the CEO of SpaceX, but he does not speak for the thousands of people who work for him. The image of Musk taking a quick hit—“I mean, it’s legal, right?” he had said—probably thrilled some employees and irked others. Musk showed questionable judgment (at best) given that he is the public face of the country’s most successful rocket company. But he’s not one of the technicians handling the wiring inside a spacecraft.
NASA’s disapproval may seem like an antiquated reaction in a time of greater acceptance of marijuana use across the country. A recent Pew study reported that 62 percent of Americans believe marijuana use should be legalized, up from 31 percent in 2000. As of this month, 33 states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books legalizing marijuana in some form. Ten states and the nation’s capital allow recreational use. Earlier this month, in the hours after President Donald Trump fired Jeff Sessions—a well-known prosecutor during the war on drugs who used his time as attorney general to promote anti-marijuana policies—stock prices for cannabis businesses spiked.
Against this backdrop, NASA’s decision to investigate the “culture” of the companies recalls the days of “reefer madness,” the 1930s public campaign that intended to stoke fears of marijuana as a dangerous drug that would lead people down a path to criminality. The same message was at the heart of Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs” in 1980s, which imposed far harsher punishments than the country had seen before, including long prison sentences for offenders that would be deemed severe today.
But it’s important to remember that as cool as NASA looks on the outside—Mars rovers! Jupiter orbiters! Hubble pictures of galaxies!—it is a federal agency, and its culture is tangled up with the historic record of federal statutes, including those on drugs. In 1980, as NASA prepared for the first launch of the space shuttle, the Drug Enforcement Administration called marijuana the most urgent drug problem facing the United States. Under the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, a Reagan policy, companies that receive federal contracts of $100,000 or more must maintain a drug-free policy—and NASA projects usually cost a lot more than that.
Musk’s weed moment presented a new situation for NASA. The space agency has spent most of its existence working with big defense contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, which have well-established drug-use policies that align with federal law. SpaceX—a feisty start-up with a young workforce and a CEO with a household name—is a completely different animal. Perhaps NASA feels it needs to bring SpaceX in line with the old-timers, who are known for their strictness, said a Lockheed Martin engineer who works as a NASA contractor on the Orion capsule, part of another crew-transportation project.
“They know that breaking rules, including drug rules, can jeopardize their programs, and even the whole company. So it seems like NASA would rarely need to intervene when the companies are so on top of it themselves,” said the engineer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “But when the person in question is also in charge of the company, I guess NASA felt they needed to be the ones providing oversight.”
After the Rogan podcast aired, rumors swirled that the U.S. Air Force, which maintains contracts with SpaceX to launch military satellites, was concerned about Musk smoking pot on-air. An Air Force spokesperson told The Verge that reports of a full-blown investigation were “inaccurate,” but added, “We’ll need time to determine the facts and the appropriate process to handle the situation.”
At least one retired U.S. drug official took his concerns right to the feds. Mike Vigil, the former chief of the DEA’s international operations, wrote a letter to Sessions urging him to investigate whether Musk violated any federal laws, according to the Washington Examiner, which obtained the letter. “Federal defense contractors like SpaceX are subject to higher standards and must abide by additional laws and regulations governing their obligations to ensure a drug-free workplace as a condition of receiving billions in dollars in taxpayer funding,” Vigil wrote.
The Justice Department did not respond to questions about involvement in the NASA review.
The safety review comes at the end of what Musk has described as “the most difficult and painful year of my career.” Musk started 2018 on a high note with the successful launch of the massive Falcon Heavy rocket and its shiny payload, a cherry-red convertible from Tesla, his electric-car company. By spring, the tides seemed to shift. Musk became embroiled in public disputes with investors, journalists, and a British diver whom Musk accused of being a pedophile. In the fall, a rogue tweet about Tesla’s future, featuring an apparent marijuana reference, prompted a federal lawsuit that cost Musk his role as chairman of Tesla’s board for three years and $20 million in fines.
SpaceX has largely stayed out of the fray, a situation that NASA officials have no doubt welcomed. It appears that someone in government, whether at NASA or at legal agencies, took the Tesla debacle as a cautionary tale and found reason to be concerned as their long-anticipated test launches approached. Imagine if the CEO of the company that the federal government had entrusted with getting Americans to space in one piece was also being sued by the federal government. If officials wanted to warn Musk, the pot-smoking and whiskey-drinking are their way in. Unlike some examples of the entrepreneur’s erratic behavior, these actions may be subject to legitimate investigation, backed up by federal policies.
Despite the safety reviews, the work moves forward. A day after The Post broke the news, NASA announced it has set January 7 as the date for SpaceX’s first demonstration in the program, an uncrewed test flight. The capsule, named Dragon, will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral’s launchpad 39A, the site of Apollo and space shuttle launches. A launch of Boeing’s system, the Starliner capsule and an Atlas V rocket manufactured by the United Launch Alliance, is expected to follow in March. If the tests are successful, NASA astronauts, decked in SpaceX space suits, will launch from U.S. soil by June.