NASA has announced the names of the astronauts chosen to fly in the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule and Boeing’s Starliner, and the list includes Sunita Williams. Williams will be on team Boeing, but she had previously operated the International Space Station robotic arm during the ISS’ first “capture” of an earlier, unmanned version of SpaceX’s Dragon.

I met “Sunny” in 2013 when SpaceX management invited me to help host a small dinner with her and fellow astronaut Aki Hoshide of Japan. I remember being stunned by the invite; “why did you pick me?” I asked. “You’re an interesting guy, and have interesting stories,” the SpaceX rep said. I assured them that no story I had was going to be more interesting than anything the astronauts had, but I accepted nevertheless. What, I was going to say no?

Chris Paris and Sunita Williams at the SpaceX plant in 2013.

I was right, too. While I wound up grilling Williams and Hoshide, I never once launched into one of my tales of ISO 9001 or AS9100 gone awry.  I wasn’t about to tell them how fucked up the AS9100 scheme is over casual chicken cordon bleu. Instead, I asked what re-entry sounded like, and Williams gave an especially exciting and frightening account: she said for much of it, all you hear is the clicking of the various re-entry thrusters firing, until you’re snapped by the sudden catch of the final parachute. I asked her if it was terrifying as it sounds, and she said while it was physically jarring, that this is why she signed up. To her, her entire job was a thrill ride that simultaneously allowed her to use hard science. Not a bad gig if you can get it. Her enthusiasm was downright infectious, as was that of Hoshide.

Christopher Paris and astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.

Williams’ prior connections with SpaceX meant I assumed she’d be in the first draft of Dragon astronauts, but she wasn’t in the early training roster. I thought that was odd. Instead, Dragon will be flown by astronauts Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley, Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover. Either way, I’m just not convinced SpaceX has the right stuff to put people in its rockets yet, and with an increasingly unstable senior executive, my worries have never been stronger. Maybe Sunny read the tea leaves?

In the industry, there are valid concerns over SpaceX’s “cowboy attitude” to flight safety, as the company is populated by an overwhelming number of young, inexperienced engineers, many of whom are fresh out of school. Just look at any of the company’s YouTube launch videos, and you’ll notice that there are almost no folks over the age of 35. With that comes reports of an agist, “bro culture” that pushes out experienced aerospace engineers who grow frustrated trying to teach the younger kids their past mistakes. I knew one quality engineer who quit for just that reason; he had been with Boeing or Lockheed previously (I now no longer remember), and was also troubled by the culture. His prior employer was a liability, since SpaceX views competitor ULA (made up of Boeing and Lockheed) as the enemy.

The makeup of SpaceX’s management team reflects this bro culture. The company did not bring in aerospace-seasoned production management, but instead hired a younger-skewing management from BMW, headed by Andrew Lambert. Lambert brought in many modern production methods, and turned the company from an R&D firm to one that was producing dozens of rocket “cores” per year, and implemented a Lean 5S program lifted from the automotive world. But he didn’t, apparently, address the “cowboy attitude” problem infecting the company. And he certainly didn’t fix it.

It was on Lambert’s watch that SpaceX was found harboring dozens of uncorrected AS9100 nonconformities when the US Dept. of Defense’s Inspector General’s office audited them in 2017. The DoD released that report publicly, which is as much of a black eye to SpaceX’s registrar NSF-ISR as it is for SpaceX. Regardless of whether one can dismiss the opinions of former SpaceX employees, like the quality engineer — maybe he was disgruntled for entirely different reasons — you can’t dismiss the DOD IG’s independent report.

This matters more than ever because dedicated people are now going to be flying in SpaceX’s vehicles. Whereas NASA can kill astronauts and round up another batch, SpaceX doesn’t have that luxury. Should anything to happen to astronauts in its vehicle, the company will be shut down during an investigation, with the increasingly-troubled Elon Musk dragged before Congress — along with his management team. If Musk can’t control himself on an earnings call to Tesla, or on Twitter, imagine the funhouse freakshow that will unravel when he’s sitting before an angry Senate hearing panel and his notoriously short temper and thin skin is tested for eight straight hours. If investigators find actual negligence, then Musk goes to jail; NASA administrators typically don’t have that risk.

My worry is entirely selfish, I know. To most of us, astronauts are just people you see on television, and aren’t real; but after you’ve sat and had dinner with them, talked one-on-one, the connection becomes more personal. I know Williams’ and Hoshide’s level of professionalism is shared by Behnken, Hurley, Hopkins and Glover, and I only hope their dedication to the profession and science is returned by SpaceX with due care for their health and safety. They deserve nothing less. A “bro culture” is fine in a fraternity, but it’s not so good when you’re building giant, controlled bombs that people ride into space.

One last thing. Boeing, you’d better have your shit together, too.

[Correction: an early version of this op-ed indicated Sunita Williams had been chosen to fly SpaceX Dragon; the article was corrected.]


Be Sociable, Share!

    About Christopher Paris

    Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001:2015. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.