Billionaire Elon Musk owns SpaceX, one of the most important private partners the U.S. has for its ongoing space endeavors. Musk also owns Twitter, one of the world’s most important platforms for online discourse. Unfortunately, the world’s richest man is also becoming one of the world’s most polarizing figures thanks to the shitshow the blue bird app has become—and NASA is understandably taking notice.
According to Ars Technica’s senior space editor Eric Berger, NASA’s administrator Bill Nelson said after a Sunday press conference that he had recently talked with Gwynne Shotwell, the SpaceX president and chief operating officer. During that conversation, Nelson asked if Musk’s Twitter debacle was proving a “distraction,” which she assured him it wasn’t. According to NBC News, Nelson also told reporters: “I hugged her with a smile on my face, because I know she is running that thing. She’s running SpaceX.”
That Nelson might be concerned with “that thing” is wholly understandable, especially given the newly forged arrangement between NASA and SpaceX, in which the private company was tapped to build the next lunar lander for the Artemis program. That $1.15 billion contract for a second, tweaked version of the company’s Starship lunar lander is a major part of NASA’s plans for a planned Artemis 4 Moon landing no earlier than 2027. It’s also an extension of an existing $2.89 billion contract NASA has with SpaceX for an Artemis 3 human landing system.
Shotwell has been at SpaceX since 2002 and was named president in 2008. She has been at the forefront of many, many Falcon rocket launches that have helped secure many big-money contracts with NASA, among other countries and private companies. While lauding Shotwell, astronomer and science blogger Phil Plait doubted that the Musk-enabled infiltration of racism and xenophobia into the Twitter discourse hasn’t had an impact on the billionaire’s other companies.
NASA has made SpaceX an integral partner for its Artemis program, and beyond. With the splashdown of the Orion capsule on Sunday, the U.S. space agency is ready to call its first Artemis launch a success. That’s not to say some, including former NASA head Lori Garver, aren’t scrutinizing and criticizing the entire enterprise for the multiple delays of its first launch. Any further delays on account of distracted contractors would be more ammunition for such criticisms.
SpaceX continues to be a key partner for NASA, providing commercial crew and cargo services for the space agency. Any partnership with an outside group, particularly when human lives are at stake, needs to take potential risks into account. Should SpaceX begin to waiver in its ability to deliver, or exhibit signs of unprofessionalism and poor conduct at the workplace, NASA may choose to look elsewhere. Indeed, Boeing is currently working on a commercial crew vehicle, called Starliner, to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, while Blue Origin and Dynetics are seeking to secure a NASA contract for an alternate, non-SpaceX Artemis lunar lander.
The thing is, we already know Musk’s tweets have caused friction at SpaceX. Back in July, several company employees distributed an internal letter complaining that Musk’s twitter habit was a “distraction and embarrassment.” How did the company respond? Well, SpaceX turned around and fired the eight employees responsible for the letter. Last month, those same employees filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board claiming retaliation.
The fired employees also listed some of Musk’s most-offending tweets up to that point, but all of that occurred before the billionaire finally closed on his $44 billion purchase of the platform. Musk’s tweets have become even more explicitly political as of late, even roping in famed astronauts into his online obsessions. Over the past weekend, former astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted at Musk, asking him to stop mocking members of the LGBTQ community. He also asked Musk to stop spreading accusations against the White House’s chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci.
In response to Kelly’s clear and diplomatic request for empathy, Musk doubled down on his conspiratorial, anti-LGBT rhetoric and complained about people “forcing” their pronouns upon others. Let’s also not forget how Musk’s claims against Fauci conveniently ignore his own early pandemic tweets, which proved to be very, very wrong.