OPINION: What’s Behind NASA’s ‘Safety Review’ Of SpaceX And Boeing?

L Galbraith/Shutterstock

Mark Whittington Contributor
Font Size:

When it was reported that NASA is suddenly going to conduct what it called a “safety review” of SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies that will soon be flying astronauts to and from the International Space Station, eyebrows raised and jaws dropped across the media. The space agency has been working closely with SpaceX for the past 10 years, and with Boeing since the Apollo program. Nevertheless, the reviews will be extensive and intrusive, involving inspections of facilities and interviews with hundreds of employees.

The space agency is suddenly getting nervous about what NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called “the culture of inappropriateness,” especially at SpaceX. Allegedly, the sudden review was triggered by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s often off-putting behavior on social media, culminating in his smoking a joint during a podcast. The truth may be a little bit more sinister.

Eric Berger, a space reporter at Ars Technica, tweeted that the impetus for the review may be coming from somewhere above the NASA administrator’s pay grade: “The NASA ‘safety review’ of SpaceX (and Boeing) looks pretty daft, especially because the agency has a lot riding on the success of commercial crew. Guess who doesn’t? Key people in Congress who never really liked the program, to begin with.”

He added that some source suggest a political motive for the reviews. The implication is that some members of Congress, beholden to more traditional aerospace firms and frightened of the success SpaceX has enjoyed in recent years, would like to take the free-wheeling commercial space company down a peg or two.

Less ominous reasons may exist for the reviews than assuaging the parochial interests of Congress. Musk smoked weed on his own time in a state where recreational pot is legal. However, marijuana is still prohibited on the federal level, which may present a problem for a federal agency such as NASA.

If the SpaceX-crewed Dragon had an accident, the fury in Congress would be explosive. NASA has bad memories of what happened after the Apollo Fire and the loss of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. The space agency will have to be seen as doing everything possible to avoid another space accident, even if it means going through a safety review that many believe is a waste of time and resources.

Eric Berger, in his Ars Technica article about the review, pointed out that the “safety culture” at Roscosmos, which is currently providing rides for astronauts to the International Space Agency, has hardly been beyond reproach. A hole was found drilled in one Soyuz spacecraft docked to the ISS, and another Soyuz had to abort during launch because of a faulty sensor. The stereotypical love of vodka in Russian culture comes to mind.

On the other hand, the spectacle of NASA officials being triggered by Elon Musk’s toking a reefer brings to mind the story told about an incident when several members of Congress complained to President Abraham Lincoln that General Ulysses S. Grant was a drunkard. Lincoln, noting that Grant was winning victories for the Union, openly pondered sending barrels of Grant’s favorite whisky to his other generals.

In the spirit of Lincoln, considering the great success that SpaceX has enjoyed in reducing the cost of space travel, perhaps it would be a good idea to find out what Elon Musk’s favorite blend of marijuana is and send a few buds to the CEOs of other aerospace companies, not to mention certain NASA officials more comfortable with following the rules and being “appropriate” than launching rockets and exploring the universe.

As Rand Simberg, a critic of NASA, observed on Twitter: “Does NASA really imagine that no one at NASA smoked dope during Apollo? They had an average age of 26. In the sixties.”

That assertion, even if wide of the mark, is a fascinating thought.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.