Ex-SpaceX Employee Said He Was Shoved Aside to Make Way for Younger 'Frat Bro' Staff

A former ‘hardcore’ engineer at SpaceX alleged ageism in the the way the company transferred work to younger employees who expected him to ‘retire or die.’

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The SpaceX facilities in Hawthorne, California with a large rocket sitting outside on the main road.
John Johnson said he worked at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California facility before being moved to Washington. In that time, he claimed he was being perpetually shafted by management in favor of younger employees.
Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP (Getty Images)

A former SpaceX employee said the company is rife with a kind of “frat bro mold” that has no place for any experienced person over 40 years old.

In a post on the whistleblower site Lioness, former SpaceX principal engineer John Johnson, now 62, said he was as “hardcore” as CEO Elon Musk claims he wants his employees to be. He also claimed he put in long hours—10 to 12 hours daily—and worked nights and weekends. He went on to say he continued working at the company facilities during the pandemic.


In an interview with The Verge, Johnson said he was 20 when he got started in the optics industry, and he later became a major element of SpaceX’s optical projects after he was hired in 2018 at the age of 58. The engineer’s LinkedIn describes years at multiple tech and aerospace companies.

He told The Verge that SpaceX was “scrappy” and he was often involved in a lot of physical labor, despite the company’s enormous, multi-billion dollar government contracts. The work often involved schlepping around worksites with heavy instruments and dragging other equipment on pallet jacks. According to his own account on Lioness, in 2019 he injured his back while on the job and endured weeks of physical therapy, though in that time he continued working, even delaying a surgery for several months. Yet in the time leading up to the surgery, he said the company hired new, younger staff to take over his previously assigned roles. He further alleged those interlopers passed off his work as their own, and that they had far less experience than he had in any of their new roles. Many of these new reassignments were coming from Starlink management, he said.


After claiming age discrimination, Johnson said he met with human resources officers who told him they were “misunderstandings,” though after being relocated to Redmond, Washington from Los Angeles, California, he was told he was on a non-management track.

Johnson said that he was not overweight or unhealthy, and had not yet planned retirement but management asked these new engineers to take over his job. His supposed replacement sent to shadow him allegedly told the optics engineer that management expected him to “retire or die” soon enough. After more meetings with HR and loss of responsibilities, he said he submitted his resignation in June this year, according to The Verge.


Johnson also told Bloomberg he put in a discrimination complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission. During his time at SpaceX, Johnson also reported his issues with Gwynne Shotwell, the company president and chief operating officer, who told him there would be an investigation. SpaceX did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment (of course not, it’s a Musk company) and Johnson said he never heard anything more about that investigation.

This isn’t the first time an employee has alleged discrimination at SpaceX. Last year, former company engineer Ashley Kosak alleged the company was “rife with sexism” and that she experienced multiple episodes of sexual harassment. Any time she went to HR with complaints, she alleged she was brushed off. Kosak also claimed she met with Shotwell, but that shortly after, during a leave of absence, the company asked her to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding the allegations.


Shotwell has long toed the company line, and has been especially defensive of her boss Elon Musk when he’s been called out on sexual harassment. When some SpaceX employees circulated an open letter complaining Musk’s tweets were making the company look bad, Shotwell reportedly had them all fired, something the axed employees say was done illegally.