NASA opens safety review of Boeing and SpaceX


Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right or below. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

Turf war! Prompted by Elon Musk’s single hit of marijuana during a podcast interview, NASA has begun a detailed safety review of both SpaceX and Boeing.

[William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration,] said the review would focus not on the technical details of developing rockets and spacecraft but rather the companies’ safety culture — encompassing the number of hours employees work, drug policies, leadership and management styles, whether employees’ safety concerns are taken seriously, and more.

“Is the culture reflective of an environment that builds quality spacecraft,” Gerstenmaier said. The review would be led by NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, which has conducted similar probes inside NASA. Gerstenmaier said the process would be “pretty invasive,” involving hundreds of interviews with employees at every level of the companies and at multiple work locations.

This is a power-play, pure and simple. NASA might claim it cares about safety, but its track record suggests instead that its real motive is to prove to SpaceX that it is in charge, not SpaceX. It rankles NASA’s bureaucracy that they cannot call the shots at SpaceX, and have found themselves embarrassed by its success, compared to the agency’s continuing failures with SLS. Moreover, considering the space shuttle’s unsafe history, NASA’s safety track record and the workplace culture that produced that history is nothing to brag about.

These “invasive” interviews are guaranteed to find workplace issues that NASA will then use as a hammer to take further control SpaceX’s operations, making it less innovative, more expensive, and more bureaucratic. And I see no one in the Trump administration, including Trump, very interested in reining NASA in on these matters.

Share

13 comments

  • geoffc

    Do you think that this approach will lead to SpaceX doing Mars missions without NASA approval? (I guess key issue is FAA permissions to launch, but I am sure NASA has alot of clout there).

    I accept for NASA, slowing down the SpaceX Mars missions is a win.

  • Tom Billings

    Elsewhere, it is being noted that NASA may be pushed into this, by the political results of the statements of Associate Administrator Jurczyck last week. Last week he admitted that once Spaceship/Super Heavy and New Glenn, and possibly New Armstrong, are in assured operational status, *then* NASA may walk away from SLS. Apparently, the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Shelby, went ballistic over the weekend about that statement.

    As a way to calm Senator Shelby, and assure their overall budget being passed, NASA may be yet again appeasing him by this delay in Commercial Crew. Every day that Commercial Crew is delayed, Senator Shelby has less need to expend *his* political clout to hold together the SLS/Orion coalition in Congress. This is yet another round in that delay game.

  • wodun

    It could be that this wasn’t inspired by Musk toking up and is just referred to that way because that is what made the interview memorable to the public. IIRC, he talked about how overworked he was and how little sleep he got sometimes. SpaceX has a reputation for working people hard. There could be some legitimate questions about workplace culture but it seems this would have already been looked at over the last decade and that their actual operations record would be considered.

  • Chris

    If they have issues withMusk taking a public”toke”
    I want tissue sample tests of NASA administrators and engineers-let’s see who is high and who is not

  • Orion314

    re: wodun,
    sure wish Nasa had a reputation for working people hard, Haven’t heard that about Nasa since the 60’s… when you think Nasa. think US post office. It never gets better, rather,it’s always worse. But, at least, they have cool stamps.

  • It may well be that the cynicism expressed by nearly all here is legit. But shouldn’t we at least consider the best arguments on the other side rather than just assume negative motivations?

    We are after all dealing with the lives of NASA’s astronauts. Would it be OK for NASA to have little insight into the safety culture of the companies that their astronauts will depend upon? Might they have appropriately learned the lesson that an organization’s safety culture can result in the loss of crew?

    As SpaceX knows full well, sometimes rockets go boom. If one of these companies’ crew rockets exploded, might the cause be a failure of the company’s safety culture? Might a for-profit company cut safety corners due to the pressure to make a profit. Might employees not speak up because they fear being fired if they do?

    So, if you were NASA, footing the bill, and it was your astronauts, you would want to know the safety culture of both companies? No?

  • commodude

    Doug,

    It’s a pure bureaucratic power play. If they’re concerned about safety in the workplace, you audit the workplace records. If you’re concerned about the safety of the product, you examine production records and test product. All workplace interviews do is give the NASA bureaucracy an opening in the “gotcha” game perfected by the likes of Robert Mueller.

  • wayne

    Chris–
    Good stuff!
    (If we’re talking the Joe Rogan interview, unlike obama, Musk barely took a (1/2) puff off a blunt (tobacco mixed with weed) in a State where it’s legal to consume, and I’d hardly call that a toke.) He was however nursing a tumbler of whiskey during that interview.
    What I want to see— the prescribing records for ALL members of Congress. (They have their own on-site pharmacy.)
    We’ll see how much Adderall, Oxycontin, Aricept, Cialis, Xanax, and Ambien, they ALL take, at taxpayer expense. (While they preach the evils of pharmaceutical’s, for the rest of us.)

  • commodude

    Wayne,

    I;m far more concerned with the dementia drugs prescribed for members of Congress:

    https://www.foxnews.com/politics/uproar-as-capitol-hill-pharmacist-dishes-on-alzheimers-prescriptions-for-the-powerful

  • commodude

    Note, the article was altered after the initial publication with the pharmacist recanting his comments about Alzheimer’s and dementia drugs, AKA you’ve been caught violating HIPPA laws, walk back your original comments.

  • wayne

    commodude-
    Yes, absolutely!

  • Edward

    DougSpace asked several good questions:

    But shouldn’t we at least consider the best arguments on the other side rather than just assume negative motivations?

    Unfortunately, the timing is suspicious. There have been other sudden new requirements that have caused delays in the start of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and only the commercial companies are being audited for safety concerns, not Lockheed Martin and Airbus, which are making Orion and 1-1/2 service modules. This safety audit puts only the Commercial Crew Program at risk for delay, not Orion, the service module, or SLS. This also seems suspicious.

    If NASA were actually concerned about this issue, why did it only come up now, just before the demonstration launches, rather than come up at the beginning of the program, when a safety culture could design in the desired safety?

    We are after all dealing with the lives of NASA’s astronauts. Would it be OK for NASA to have little insight into the safety culture of the companies that their astronauts will depend upon? Might they have appropriately learned the lesson that an organization’s safety culture can result in the loss of crew?

    Once again, NASA is giving a pass to the companies that are making the hardware that NASA will call its own. Any problems that arise from Orion-SLS will be as pinned to NASA as was the problems on other NASA spacecraft (Apollo and Space Shuttle) — not pinned to the commercial manned space companies. NASA is being selective in its auditing program, showing concern only for the astronauts flying commercial rather than civil space.

    As SpaceX knows full well, sometimes rockets go boom. If one of these companies’ crew rockets exploded, might the cause be a failure of the company’s safety culture? Might a for-profit company cut safety corners due to the pressure to make a profit. Might employees not speak up because they fear being fired if they do?

    If the concern included the rocket going boom, then ULA would also have to be audited for its safety culture.

    The for-profit US airline industry demonstrated even after deregulation that safety was a prime issue and that corners were not cut. There were still accidents for two more decades, but the airlines made safety such an issue that fatal accidents are now amazingly infrequent. Just as with the airlines, it will likely take the manned space industry a long time to learn the hard lessons that will happen, and like the airlines, I doubt that accidents will be due to a lack of concern for safety.

    So, if you were NASA, footing the bill, and it was your astronauts, you would want to know the safety culture of both companies? No?

    So why not audit Lockheed Martin and Airbus? Wouldn’t you want to know the safety culture of those companies, too? Their equipment could cause deadly problems, too. An Apollo capsule, the design model for Orion, killed one crew, and an Apollo service module would have killed another crew if there hadn’t been a lunar module for the crew to use as a lifeboat.

    An obvious answer to my questions: it is not about NASA’s concerns for safety but about power over a company that is independent and works best that way. It seems, unfortunately for Boeing, that the net was cast wide in order to cover up the object of the exercise.

    Unless the object of the exercise is to further delay the Commercial Crew Program, in which case Boeing is also a target for harassment.

  • Edward

    There has been much talk about the futility of continuing to build SLS and Orion. As Tom Billings pointed out, NASA’s Associate Administrator Jurczyck suggested that SLS may be cancelled after SpaceX’s Spaceship/Super Heavy and Blue Origin’s New Armstrong are operational, as these two new rockets can perform similar missions as SLS, most likely at much reduced cost.

    Some people have wondered what NASA would spend money on if they stopped spending on SLS. The following essay looks at this topic and suggests a couple of better places to spend NASA’s money:
    https://spacenews.com/op-ed-nasa-at-60-the-best-of-our-energies-and-skills/

    To make the next 50 years of human spaceflight different from the last, government spending should change its focus from federal job creation to that of creating private infrastructure that, while serving government purposes, is also available to other private industries. Where to start? First, stop projects whose only goal is to maintain infrastructure that has little value to the American people “beyond the room” — especially when those projects are not going well. Prime examples are NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and the Orion capsule that rides on it. … renew and extend the life of the International Space Station and prepare it for the future. … Phase two is for the U.S. to make a commitment to go back to the moon and attempt to use the resources there to anchor future activities in space.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *