Bridenstine: SpaceX, Boeing Safety Review Prompted by Past Tragedies, Not Just Musk

Bridenstine: SpaceX, Boeing Safety Review Prompted by Past Tragedies, Not Just Musk

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said today that the recently announced safety review of the two commercial crew contractors was his decision.  In a meeting with reporters, he explained that investigations of past fatal human spaceflights cited workplace culture as a contributing cause and he wants to get ahead of the issue before crews launch on the Boeing and SpaceX systems, not after something goes wrong.  While SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk’s recent behavior was “not helpful,” he would have ordered the safety review anyway.

The first crewed flights of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon are expected next year.  Both are being developed as public-private partnerships where the government and the companies both pay for development and the government, in this case NASA, guarantees to purchase a certain amount of services.  The goal is a commercially-provided service where NASA is just one of many customers resulting in lower costs than if the agency used traditional procurement mechanisms.

NASA chose Boeing and SpaceX in 2014 to build new crew space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  Under their contracts with NASA, each company must conduct first an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight as steps toward certification of their systems for operational launches.

NASA announced last week that the SpaceX uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, would take place on January 7, 2019, although Bridenstine later tweeted that he does not actually expect the launch to take place then.  The date was announced to allow foreign journalists to begin the process to allow them to attend the launch, he said.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Bridenstine reiterated that today, saying January 7 is a “very low probability” date, but he is confident it will take place “in the first half of 2019.”  He remains optimistic that the SpaceX crewed test flight, as well as Boeing’s uncrewed and crewed test flights, also will all occur in 2019.

Before those crew flights take place, however, he wants to be sure employees at the two companies are not feeling cost or schedule pressure and are able to raise “red flags” freely.  He noted that the investigations into the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident and 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy found that the culture at NASA and its contractors led some workers to feel reticent about raising issues that might have avoided the failures. He does not want that to happen again.

“We need to do a cultural assessment ahead of time,” not after an incident.  “We want to get ahead of it.”

Bridenstine confirmed that Elon Musk’s September 7  appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast — where he smoked marijuana and drank whiskey — were part of what triggered his concerns.  However, requiring a cultural assessment was already “on my mind” after reading the accident investigation reports while preparing for his confirmation hearings.  While Musk’s behavior was “not helpful … we would be doing this anyway.”

Still, Musk “did not inspire confidence, and the leaders of these organizations need to take that as an example of what not to do when you lead an organization that’s going to be launching American astronauts.”  Asked if he has spoken to Musk about it, he replied yes, several times, and Musk agrees.  “He is as committed to safety as anybody.  He understands that was not appropriate behavior and you won’t be seeing that again.”

After the requirement for the safety reviews became public, Boeing and SpaceX each issued statements expressing confidence that their workplaces will pass any such review.

SpaceX said human spaceflight is its “core mission” and it is “confident that our comprehensive drug-free workforce and workplace programs exceed all applicable contractual requirements.”

Boeing said the “culture at Boeing ensures the integrity, safety and quality of our products, our people and their work environment. As NASA’s trusted partner since the beginning of human spaceflight, we share the same values and are committed to continuing our legacy of trust, openness and mission success.”

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