SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s infamous pot-smoking incident last year prompted NASA to order a mandatory review of the federal contractor’s workplace culture.
NASA ordered the review of the safety measures at SpaceX and Boeing in November, after Musk smoked marijuana and sipped whiskey on Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained at the time that “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”.
“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,” Bridenstine added.
However, according to contracting records reviewed by POLITICO, taxpayers, not the company, are bearing the cost of the review.
The space agency agreed to pay SpaceX $5 million in May to cover the cost of the review, which includes educating its employees and ensuring they are following strict guidelines for federal contractors barring illegal drug use.
The decision, which has not previously been reported, struck some space industry insiders as a highly unusual expenditure given that Musk, who holds a security clearance, prompted the concerns about whether SpaceX is following the rules.
While marijuana is legal in multiple states, including California, where Musk’s stunt took place, it remains illegal under federal law. And illegal drug use is also, considered a violation of the terms of a government security clearance.
The NASA contract to SpaceX to pay for the workplace review, a modification to a previous contract to build a space capsule, also marks a new chapter in its ongoing tension with more established rivals like Boeing.
Boeing and SpaceX are competing to build a new space capsule for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX is building the Crew Dragon capsule and Boeing is manufacturing the Starliner. Both programs are behind schedule.
But while Boeing was also directed to undertake the same review of workplace safety and culture after Musk’s marijuana smoking, it didn’t get any extra funds to cover the cost.
The episode raises a number of questions, said Pete Garrettson, a recently retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and space strategist.
“As a taxpayer why would I pay when I don’t have to?” he asked. “If I was Boeing, I also would have said, ‘Why am I being punished without the same compensation?’”
But if the aerospace giant wanted NASA to cover the costs of the review, he added, it may have faced uncomfortable questions about why its costs for the Commercial Crew Program are so much higher than SpaceX’s.
SpaceX said that it is using the money to cover the cost of the review, which will include interviews with staff at all levels across the company and was not part of the original contract for the Crew Dragon capsule back in 2014.
While Boeing said it is carrying out the culture review under its current contract. That includes the additional costs of conducting interviews with employees ranging from senior managers to engineers.
“SpaceX worked closely with NASA to account for additional work beyond the scope of the contract,” said James Gleeson, a SpaceX spokesman.
Boeing confirmed that it did not receive any extra money for its review, which officials say also includes reviewing documents and interviewing employees to ensure it is also maintaining a drug-free workplace under its Starliner contract. It’s not clear how much the review will cost Boeing.