It’s always fun to check in with SpaceX, Elon Musk’s least dysfunctional company — oh wait, what’s this? The workers at SpaceX are upset?
Last week, as first reported by The Verge, a group of SpaceX workers wrote a letter to Musk about his tweets. “Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks,” the letter states. “As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX — every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and to our potential talent pool that his messaging does not reflect our work, our mission, or our values.”
The plan was to hand-deliver signatures of those who agreed with the letter to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, who effectively runs the company. Sure, Musk’s title is CEO, but he’s largely a spokesmodel (although I suppose he’s probably also taken on the project of berating the Starship engineers to go faster). Shotwell’s been working in aerospace since 1988, when Musk was still in college. Musk might be the “ideas guy,” but SpaceX is Shotwell’s show.
This is obvious if you think about it even a little. Consider Tesla, which is the focus of most of Musk’s attention: constantly in crisis mode, incapable of meeting deadlines, and currently pretending that it’s manufacturing a Westworld knockoff robot. SpaceX is not like this! It’s also plagued by delays, but it manages to fulfill its government contracts. There’s much less drama around SpaceX, which can only mean Musk isn’t running it. Someone who’s competent at basic management is — and that’s Shotwell.
But even Shotwell can’t prevent Musk’s chaos from hitting SpaceX, especially now that he’s threatening to take over a major social media company. Thus, the letter, which led to SpaceX firing five people.
Shotwell wrote an email delivered to the entire company that had an actual audience of one — her boss — noting that SpaceX had a lot of work to do and characterizing the letter as interfering with SpaceX employees’ “ability to focus on and do their work.” No mention was made of the actual issues raised by the employees, such as the allegations that the company’s “no asshole” policy isn’t real, and neither is its “zero-tolerance” sexual harassment policy. Nor was any mention made of Musk’s bid for Twitter, which is what prompted this cycle of Musk shitposting activity, which, in turn, created a distraction that interfered with SpaceX employees’ ability to focus on their work.
The “zero-tolerance” sexual harassment policy is a particular issue for SpaceX since SpaceX reportedly paid $250,000 to a flight attendant who says Musk exposed his penis to her and offered to buy her a horse if she gave him an erotic massage. This does not seem like a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment; it seems like a zero-tolerance policy for complaints about sexual harassment.
And, besides, Shotwell doesn’t think the case uncovered by Business Insider is real: “I believe the allegations to be false; not because I work for Elon, but because I have worked closely with him for 20 years and never seen nor heard anything resembling these allegations,” Shotwell wrote in a separate email that was also sent to the whole company. “Anyone who knows Elon like I do, knows he would never conduct or condone this alleged inappropriate behavior.”
A company paying out for its CEO’s bad behavior is consistent with an unenforced “zero-tolerance” sexual harassment policy. Five former workers also alleged last year that SpaceX doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. A former mission integration engineer also posted an essay where she described being groped during her internship and persistent sexual advances during the rest of her career there. “I reported each incident of sexual harassment I experienced to HR, and nothing was done,” wrote Ashley Kosak, the former employee, in her essay. “I was told that matters of this nature were too private to openly discuss with the perpetrators.”
Anyway, back to this recent letter. I don’t know if these now-fired employees are going to take their case to the National Labor Relations Board, though some experts The Verge spoke to last week suggested their firing was illegal. Musk has already had run-ins with the NLRB, which slapped him on the wrist for anti-union activity at Tesla. As part of its judgment against Musk, he was ordered to delete a tweet. It is still live.
Indeed, one service Elon Musk has provided for America is demonstrating exactly how sclerotic our legal and administrative state actually is. I have been waiting with some interest for NASA to say literally anything about this dust-up. I suppose if I wait long enough, NASA will say this is “not appropriate behavior” just like it did with the Joe Rogan weed thing, where Musk hit a blunt on Rogan’s popular podcast. After an investigation following said blunt-hitting, NASA rewarded SpaceX with a bonus $5 million for “employee education.”
I got impatient, waiting for NASA, so I emailed the agency to ask for an interview about how it plans to handle all of this. Spokesperson Joshua Finch told me that he’d try to get me a written response but didn’t think he’d be able to meet my deadline. Indeed, he didn’t. Here’s what he sent me after publication, in its entirety:
NASA takes seriously any allegations of harassment and is fully committed to providing a safe working environment. NASA contractors are responsible for adhering to workplace safety and health clauses in accordance with applicable contracts. Consistent with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, NASA generally is not involved in contractor decisions to hire/terminate employees.
This is kind of an awkward area for NASA, because NASA is also a boys’ club. According to a memoir by Lori Garver, the second-in-command during the Obama administration, Garver was “called an ugly whore, a motherfucking bitch, and a cunt; told I need to get laid, and asked if I’m on my period or going through menopause” when her co-workers disagreed with her.
More to the point, though, SpaceX is the only US company that offers a ride to the International Space Station. SpaceX and Boeing both made deals with NASA as part of the Commercial Crew Program; at the time, NASA was relying on Russian rockets to ferry its astronauts. Boeing’s competing Starliner, which has been beset by delays, has not yet carried people; it only just managed to complete an uncrewed test.
It’s not just NASA that relies on SpaceX. It’s also the US military, though, unlike NASA, the military has options. Just last weekend, SpaceX launched a communications satellite called Globalstar-2, but satellite trackers believe the mission also carried covert payloads, which may or may not be related to the US military.
To be clear, I’m spending <5% (but actually) of my time on the Twitter acquisition. It ain’t rocket science!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 19, 2022
Yesterday was Giga Texas, today is Starbase. Tesla is on my mind 24/7.
So may seem like below, but not true. pic.twitter.com/CXfWiLD2f8
The Twitter acquisition is occupying less than 5 percent of his time, Musk has claimed. Given how public that 5 percent of his time is, it has an outsized effect on his other companies. Shotwell now has to manage SpaceX through her boss’ increasingly erratic public behavior. But this underlines her actual problem: she’s not really the CEO of SpaceX — even though she is, in many ways, functionally indistinguishable from most CEOs. One difference? When the actual CEO makes a mess, she’s the one who has to clean it up.
Update June 27th, at 12PM ET: Adds NASA statement.