In October, a CNBC headline proclaimed what many watchers have long suspected: Elon Musk is More Rockstar than CEO. And as we all know, rockstars get to live by a different standard than the rest of us commoners.
This seems to be especially true in both the media’s and some government officials’ treatment of Mr. Musk.
“Brotopia,” a forthcoming book by Emily Chang of Bloomberg TV details how last summer, a board member of Musk’s SpaceX and Tesla hosted an outlandish, drug-laced sex party that Musk attended. Allegedly, participants consumed ecstasy called “Tesla;” named after Musk’s company because it turbocharged them like the electric car. One woman recounted how an older male took advantage of her by using illegal substances to alter her decision-making.
This was not the first accusation against Musk organizations. Several female employees have reported rampant sexism and harassment at Musk’s Tesla workplace, labeling it a “predator zone.” Some suggested to company leadership that merely having a female walk around with a GoPro would give them all the evidence of harassment they need. Yet, per NPR, Musk sent an all-staff e-mail saying that while instigators should stop being jerks, affected employees should accept apologies and have thicker skin.
Racism is allegedly a problem in Musk’s companies as well. One factory worker reported that in just his first week of employment, he noticed a supervisor engaging in derogatory name-calling with an African American worker. They fired this whistleblower for allegedly not having a positive attitude, while also terminating the female that sued the company over gender discrimination after the company “debunked” her claims.
Yet in the current frenzy surrounding #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter Musk seems to have been immune from the outrage and demands for removal directed at others. No one has picked apart his responses to these events, questioned whether he is enabling this behavior, or sought to examine the company culture producing these incidents. The same forces that pushed out Uber’s Travis Kalanick, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, and Al Franken have been strangely silent.
Government officials have extended the same “look the other way” rockstar treatment to Musk’s other companies as well and it could be harming the national security of the United States and costing taxpayers dearly.
This month, it seems that the billion-dollar secret “Zuma” satellite that SpaceX was supposed to carry did not reach orbit. Few details have been supplied, but it looks like this was the third payload lost on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in just four years.
The secrecy surrounding Zuma makes it quite clear than its function was clearly of a sensitive national security nature. Whatever its function was to be, the government is now being forced to operate without it. And yet, the government reacted with dismissal and referred all inquiries on the case to SpaceX, which is of course denying any responsibility.
Was “Ask SpaceX” really the right response to give when a recent audit from the Department of Defense, released in December, showed that would seem closely related to failures such as many hardware and program-related errors, including 33 major problems? Among the issues: a lack of engineering authorizations and approvals, using the wrong tools and ground support equipment, failing to develop software development plans, and leaving equipment unprotected/uncovered?
It would seem some investigation greater than “Ask SpaceX” would be needed in order for the company to begin its scheduled flight tests for sending humans to the International Space Station.
The recent Zuma failure is just the latest example where SpaceX has appeared to receive shelter from the federal government. In break from normal protocols, NASA has also continually refused to release a public report from SpaceX’s 2015 failure involving a Dragon resupply ship. While it claims this is due to the fact that it was an FAA-licensed mission, NASA promptly released one for the October of 2014 failure of SpaceX competitor Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus cargo ship, also FAA licensed. Both even involved expiring rocket lines and the same NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program.
Space flight is a tricky business. That is why protocols require checklist after checklist, redundancy, and close examination to understand the exact cause for any failure. Such investigations are critical to protecting security assets headed for space, as well as human life in space travel, and no company should be exempt from these simple measures of transparency.
Whether it’s a corrosive culture of harassment or failing rocketships, even rockstars must be held accountable for their actions. In either case there is too much at stake to do otherwise.