We are in the midst of an incredibly exciting time in space exploration. After the Space Race between the United States and Russia piqued public interest in the late 1960s, there have been relatively few groundbreaking events in the field. The recent lack of publicity caused shifts in funding and the termination of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011. Ironically, Russia is now the only country currently able to send astronauts to the International Space Station.
This is where Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, SpaceX, comes into play. Founded by Elon Musk in 2002, SpaceX has been revolutionizing the aerospace industry through drastically reduced costs stemming from reusable rockets. I cannot fathom the complexity involved in safely landing a rocket falling from space, but that isn’t what drew me to SpaceX. Instead, it was the clarity of Musk’s overarching goal: to enable people to live on other planets, specifically Mars.
SpaceX has had their share of failures, but I would argue those are to be expected when setting such an ambitious goal. They have also had incredible successes, especially as of late when SpaceX safely returned the first stage of a rocket from space on December 21, 2015.
To go along with those successes and failures, though, is controversy. In researching SpaceX, I discovered multiple ongoing class action lawsuits against the company for labor violations. Joseph A. Smith, a former tool maker at SpaceX’s rocket making facility, claims that he was forced to underreport hours and not provided the rest periods mandated by California law. Another suit, filed by former structural technicians Bobby Lee and Bron Gatling, accuses SpaceX of failure to notify employees of a significant layoff (200-400 workers) within 60 days of the event.
These cases, and others like them, are still being decided. When I first heard about the alleged labor violations, I was inclined to write them off because the innovation and success SpaceX and Tesla have achieved left an almost god-like view of Musk in my mind. However, that view began to shift as a I realized- I don’t know Elon Musk. I know of his achievements and what his PR team thinks I should know. I appreciate his work and would argue that he is one of the most influential scientific minds of his generation, but none of that speaks to whether he treats his employees fairly. Based on accounts I have read on Musk as a person, and his determination to accomplish his goal of sustaining life on another planet, I think the court could find him guilty.
After selling PayPal, Musk could have retired comfortably. Instead, he focused on something that had never been done before, and something he believes is crucial to our survival and advancement as a species. Musk is at SpaceX to change the world, and if the people working for him don’t share that passion, they may become unhappy with the amount of work he expects. In the end, I can’t say that the labor violation allegations against SpaceX changed my opinion of the company. I will read articles about it with increased skepticism, but remain as excited as ever to see where they will go next.