22 February 2019

According to Reuters, NASA has started its review into the safety culture of the two companies it has hired to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, SpaceX and Boeing. The months-long assessment will involve hundreds of interviews designed to evaluate the culture of the workplaces and ensure the companies are meeting NASA’s requirements for workplace safety.

SpaceX Dragon crew capsules - Image: NASA

SpaceX Dragon crew capsules – Image: NASA

In November the Washington Post broke news of the impending review, saying a major focus will be the companies’ adherence to a drug-free environment.

The Post quoted three officials “with knowledge of the probe” who claimed the review was prompted by the recent behaviour of SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, who took marijuana and sipped whiskey on a podcast streamed on the Internet last September. This caused questions to be raised at NASA’s highest levels, the Post said, and prompted the agency to take a close look at the culture of the companies.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration, told the Post the agency would examine “everything and anything that could impact safety” as the companies prepare to fly humans for the first time,
Gerstenmaier said the review would focus not on the technical details of developing rockets and spacecraft but rather the companies’ safety culture — encompassing the number of hours employees work, drug policies, leadership and management styles, whether employees’ safety concerns are taken seriously, and more.

He said the review would be led by NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, which has conducted similar probes inside NASA. Gerstenmaier said the process would be “pretty invasive,” involving hundreds of interviews with employees at every level of the companies and at multiple work locations.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the agency wanted to make sure the public had full confidence in its human spaceflight program, especially as the first flights are only a few months’ away.

SpaceX said in a statement that “human spaceflight is the core mission of our company. There is nothing more important to SpaceX than this endeavor, and we take seriously the responsibility that NASA has entrusted in us to safely and reliably carry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station.”

The company noted that it has worked alongside NASA for years and that it “actively promotes workplace safety, and we are confident that our comprehensive drug-free workforce and workplace programs exceed all applicable contractual requirements.”

Boeing said in a statement that its corporate culture “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.”

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts — $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX — to fly its astronauts under what is known as the Commercial Crew Program. Since then, the companies have faced setbacks and delays as they work to develop their spacecraft.

SpaceX is planning to a launch its Dragon crew capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket on March 1 after a series of delays. The unmanned capsule will carry 200 kg of supplies to the International Space Station, stay for five days and return with research samples. The first manned mission is planned for June or July.

Boeing had plans for its first manned launch in August, but is facing difficulties with its spacecraft’s heat shield and parachute systems.

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been hitching astronaut rides to the ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft and has been keen to reintroduce a US launch capability as soon as technically possible.

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