NASA, the U.S. aeronautics and space program, has a history of epoch-making achievements. But that history has also seen some tragic disasters. The Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger disaster and the Columbia crash all cost astronauts their lives. The Apollo 13 explosion nearly did. Investigations of those incidents all pointed to mechanical failures. But NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine says that technological complications always raise a second set of questions, questions about the culture of the companies NASA contracts to build its spacecraft. And for Bridenstine, the question of company culture took center stage after the NASA chief saw the now-viral video of Elon Musk drinking whiskey and smoking weed on a podcast.
NASA Demands Elon Musk Clean Up His Public Persona
Elon Musk, of course, is the world-famous entrepreneur and founder of Space X, Tesla and other massive companies. But Musk’s public persona has taken a number of hits this year, largely due to the number of hits of weed he’s taken. Earlier this year, there was the “funding secured” 420 tweet that led to SEC sanctions, fines and Musk’s stepping down as Tesla chairman. But NASA officials seem to be preoccupied with Musk’s more recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience, where the two sipped brandy and smoked blunts while predicting the end of the world.
Musk’s difficulties with Tesla and the SEC aside, Space X has had a banner year. NASA has been working with Space X since 2006. And the current project, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has contracted with Space X to to tune of $2.6 billion. But that only scratches the surface of NASA’s investment in Musk’s Space X. All told, NASA has spent nearly $7 billion on Space X contracts. With that much at stake, NASA says Elon Musk has to clean up his act.
According to Jim Bridenstine, if Space X wants to continue working with NASA, Musk can’t do uninspiring things in public, like drinking and smoking weed. “I will tell you that was not helpful,” Bridenstine said of Musk’s podcast appearance. “And that did not inspire confidence.”
NASA Clears Space X After Workplace Review But Still Treats Musk Like a Child
To be fair, NASA’s workplace culture review of Space X was in the works before Bridenstine and other officials saw Musk smoking weed on camera. Boeing, a long-time NASA contractor, was also up for review. But the video did make Musk the focus of NASA’s review of Space X. And administrators took every chance they could to admonish Musk for his social, off-the-clock activities.
With the review underway, however, Bridenstine says Musk has earned some of NASA’s confidence back. “I will tell you,” Bridenstine told reporters, “he is as committed to safety as anybody, and he understands that that was not appropriate behavior, and you won’t be seeing that again.” Apparently, if Space X wants to keep working with NASA, Musk will have to be a good boy on camera—no more drinking or getting high.
Why Shouldn’t Elon Musk Smoking Weed Inspire People?
Yet, from a different perspective, the attitude of NASA administrators is what’s childish. Their stance relies on the groundless assumption that Musk smoking weed could lead to faulty spacecraft and dead astronauts. NASA has every right to worry about the safety and success of their missions, and everything that contributes to that. But Bridenstine went further, calling Musk’s actions “uninspiring” and thus revealing his implicit, anti-cannabis bias.
To the contrary, many might find it completely inspiring that Musk can enjoy a toke or two while running successful companies. Seeing Musk shatter some of the old stereotypes about cannabis use—underachievement, irresponsibility, etc.—is, from this perspective, pretty inspiring.
Will we see Musk smoke weed again, in defiance of NASA’s Jim Bridenstine? Strategically, Musk might want to lay low for a while. Or, he could double down and make a statement: personal weed use on a podcast isn’t a threat to workplace safety. But Space X still has to prove that to NASA.