Last year, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk went on YouTube host Joe Rogan’s show and smoked some weed. That was unfortunate, because SpaceX happens to be a U.S. military contractor with security clearances, and the U.S. government does not like marijuana—and in this instance, it disliked it so much it spent $5 million to demonstrate its displeasure.
The U.S. Air Force initially seemed like it didn’t know what the hell to do about the incident. But it later emerged that top officials at NASA including administrator Jim Bridenstine were seriously peeved about Musk’s decision to light up on air. NASA then decided it would require SpaceX, as well as competitor Boeing, to go through an intensive safety audit and cultural review that it described as ensuring “the companies are meeting NASA’s requirements for workplace safety, including the adherence to a drug-free environment.” According to a report by Politico on Wednesday, SpaceX’s review ran up a $5 million tab that will go on the taxpayers’ dime.
According to Politico, one industry source said that NASA had never ordered such an extensive safety and culture review before, to the point where both SpaceX and Boeing were confused as to what exactly it was. In addition to interviewing employees at all levels of SpaceX, the review entailed having the company do some Reefer Madness shit like “educating its employees and ensuring they are following strict guidelines for federal contractors barring illegal drug use.” While SpaceX initially footed the $5 million bill, NASA agreed to reimburse it in an arrangement that Politico similarly described as highly unusual and likely unprecedented.
Despite NASA telling Politico that the repayment to SpaceX was “standard practice,” Boeing has not been reimbursed. That raises the question of why the company whose CEO started this mess got repaid instead. But Boeing might have decided that it wasn’t wise to open its mouth about the matter, as it’s received $4.8 billion from NASA as part of the long-delayed Commercial Crew Program, significantly more than SpaceX’s $3.1 billion.
Both companies were expected to deliver their replacements for the retired space shuttle by 2017, which has been a source of frustration to NASA and raised the prospect the agency will have to purchase additional seats to the International Space Station on Roscosmos rockets. NASA publicly sparred with SpaceX over the delays before burying the hatchet, so perhaps Boeing concluded that a relatively measly $5 million wasn’t worth risking their own spat over.
“The idea of NASA ever giving SpaceX preferential treatment over Boeing is simply giggle-inducing to industry insiders,” University of South California assistant professor and former Trump NASA transition team member Greg Autry told Politico. “At every step of the way Boeing got more [money] in the [Commercial Crew development] program. Far, far more than $5 million. Even discussing $5 million in this context is silly.”
In any case, while Musk may have triggered this mess, it’s ultimately the government that decided it was gonna drop five fat stacks over it. Bridenstine recently tried to downplay the whole thing, telling CNBC recently that he doesn’t think “there’s much a story there.”
“Quite frankly, I think both companies are operating really responsibly, and making sure that their cultures are safe,” Bridenstine added. “And so, as we get close to launching astronauts on rockets again, it’s not just NASA that needs to be safe, it’s our commercial partners that need to be safe.”