When Elon Musk was caught puffing marijuana on camera during a podcast interview last September, his rocket company SpaceX was in the middle of developing a spacecraft for NASA to transport future astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
Concerned that Musk’s daring stunt had violated his government security clearance as an employee of a federal contractor, NASA decided in November to carry out a full-scale safety assessment of SpaceX—as well as its competing contractor on the spacecraft project, Boeing—to ensure that no such incident would happen again. The review, still ongoing, involves one-on-one interviews with SpaceX and Boeing employees at all levels and educating them about the federal contractor guidelines prohibiting illegal drug use.
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What wasn’t disclosed to the public at the time, however, was that the review of SpaceX wasn’t paid for by the company or its CEO, but by tax payers.
According to contracting records obtained by POLITICO this week, NASA agreed to pay SpaceX $5 million in May to cover the cost of the safety assessment. The budget was in addition to the $2.6 billion contract originally awarded to SpaceX. The same assessment of Boeing, though, was paid for from its existing contract.
In 2014, NASA awarded two contracts—$2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.82 billion to Boeing—under the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The two companies were tasked to build a space capsule that can send at least four astronauts to the ISS, stay docked for six months and bring them back to Earth. Both companies are behind schedule, but the latest progress suggests that the first crewed flight could happen in early 2020.
NASA said that it’s “standard practice” to give a company additional money for work not included in the original contract. Yet the agency didn’t explain why Boeing didn’t get extra funds for the same review.
Defenders of SpaceX highlighted the vast difference in SpaceX’s and Boeing’s initial contracts for essentially the same work.
“The idea of NASA ever giving SpaceX preferential treatment over Boeing is simply giggle-inducing to industry insiders. 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,” Greg Autry, a University of Southern California professor who served on the Trump administration’s NASA transition team, told POLITICO.