Elon Musk is a man wearing many hats. In addition to running SpaceX, he’s also in charge of Tesla motors and The Boring Company.
He also has a knack for doing things he ought not to do. This includes things such as weirdly calling a hero from the Thai cave rescue a pedophile (I’m still trying to figure out where that came from and why that was a fight that he thought was worth having), and more recently appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast, where he smoked marijuana and drank alcohol.
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To Elon’s credit, marijuana and alcohol are both legal where the show was being recorded, however a lot of people think that it’s not necessarily the best optics for someone who is trying to lead the charge to humanity colonizing Mars.
This includes leadership at NASA.
In a meeting, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine commented on Elon Musk’s public behavior:
I will tell you that was not helpful, and that did not inspire confidence, and the leaders of these organizations need to take that as an example of what to do when you lead an organization that’s going to launch American astronauts.
I have publicly said numerous times that there is no logical reason for the federal government to keep marijuana illegal. It is currently classified as a Schedule I drug – a classification meant for the most dangerous of drugs. These are supposedly drugs with a high risk of dependency and without any therapeutic or medicinal value. These drugs include heroin, bath salts, and synthetic marijuana – all of which are indeed rather dangerous.
The facts don’t support this classification, though. Marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol from a societal standpoint as well as on an individual level. Hell, cocaine is a Schedule II drug.
So, according to the federal government, cocaine is less dangerous than marijuana.
But I digress.
I agree to some extent with Bridenstine’s commentary though. While I have no doubt that SpaceX does everything they possibly can to ensure employee and future astronaut safety, if there is a mishap, it will be very easy for people to point at Musk’s behavior as evidence of the culture at SpaceX. Fair or not, it’s not a good look for Elon.
The NY Post reported:
Bridenstein’s [sic] comments come in the wake of probes he ordered into workplace culture at SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies that have multimillion-dollar contracts with the space agency to fly its astronauts.
Bridenstein [sic] said his decision to launch the safety reviews was made in consideration of previous spacecraft tragedies, such as the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, which left three astronauts dead, and the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters that killed 14.
“Every single one of those accidents had a number of complications. Of course, the technological piece was a big piece of it. [But] the other question that always comes up was, What was the culture of NASA?” he said.
“What was the culture of our contractors, and were there people that were raising a red flag that we didn’t listen to, and ultimately did that culture contributes to the failure and, in those cases, to disaster?”
Spaceflight is all about minimizing risk of failure, so this makes sense, and there’s nothing wrong with an abundance of caution, especially when human lives are involved.
Bridenstine also said:
We’ve had a number of conversations. I will tell you, he is as committed to safety as anybody, and he understands that that was not appropriate behavior, and you won’t be seeing that again.
I think it’s great that instead of attacking Elon/SpaceX publicly for this, he had private conversations with Musk. I also have no doubt that Elon/SpaceX are committed to safety. Hell, they do static fire tests (where they light the booster while it’s on the launchpad, but hold it down so it doesn’t take off) on all of their rocket engines before launches. This is something that other companies/countries generally don’t do.
Here’s where I take issue.
The “you won’t be seeing that again” line is problematic to me.
Nobody is perfect. People make mistakes. In general, I’m less concerned about what the mistake was rather than why the mistake happened. If you address the “why” of the problem, you’re far less likely to encounter the problem again.
And what Musk did wasn’t illegal. He wasn’t on the clock and wasn’t necessarily on Joe Rogan’s show to promote/represent SpaceX or NASA in an official capacity.
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This sort of reminds me of the hollow threats a parent makes to their kids. Telling Elon “if you don’t stop doing that, I’m going to be really disappointed with you!” isn’t exactly that scary.
SpaceX is leasing Launchpad 39A – the historic launchpad that the Apollo missions and Shuttle missions launched from – from NASA until 2034. SpaceX is also targeting January 7th for the first demonstration flight of their Crew Dragon capsule. If the demo goes well, NASA will, for the first time since the end of the Shuttle program, put humans back into space from United States soil in the summer of 2019, thanks to SpaceX.
This all leaves me wondering – if Elon smokes some more weed or is filmed drinking alcohol, what will Bridenstine do? Cancel NASA’s return to crewed spaceflight from US soil?
Cover image: screenshot via YouTube