SpaceX fires at least five workers while Elon Musk touts freedom of speech

What does an ethical working environment mean in space?
Brad Bergan
Elon Musk (left), and SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California (right).1, 2

On the long road to expanding a permanent human presence in space, one question is often overlooked: what kind of humanity are we taking with us?

Seen from this perspective, the well-being of workers at Elon Musk's SpaceX — in addition to how it handles disputes surrounding its reaction to dissent — plays a significant role in the story of Space Race 2.0.

And, it turns out SpaceX fired at least five workers on Friday after it discovered they had drafted and circulated a letter critical of Musk, and encouraging executive officers to demand a "more inclusive" work environment, according to an initial report from Reuters.

SpaceX has not replied to an IE request for comment.

Elon Musk's SpaceX fires five employees

On Thursday, The New York Times reported that Musk's private aerospace firm had terminated employment for five workers who were allegedly involved with the letter, citing three other employees who were familiar with the firings. But there may be more people at SpaceX without jobs under similar circumstances.

In an email to the Times, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the firm had executed an investigation and "terminated a number of employees involved" with the circulating letter critical of Musk. In her email, Shotwell said the terminated employees were fired for causing other staff to feel "uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied, and/or angry because the letter pressured them to sign onto something that did not reflect their views".

This comes one day after Musk revealed more specifics about how he'll handle Twitter content moderation policy. On Thursday, the tech billionaire and SpaceX CEO and founder said he was open to a "hands-on" approach that distinguishes "freedom of speech" from "freedom of reach".

This came in reply to a question submitted by a Twitter employee, to which Musk said his vision of the social media platform would allow people to "say pretty outrageous things within the law". But Musk stressed that he wants the platform to reach a more streamlined attitude against spam and bots, saying "it needs to be much more expensive to have a troll army," according to a report from The Verge.

What constitutes an ethical working environment in space?

Taking a legal perspective on speech rights, Musk would presumably support "freedom of speech." But under U.S. law, that does not cover defamation. For example, if person A calls person B a murderer (or some other kind of criminal), then that can fundamentally alter person B's life, potentially for keeps.

And if the claim is not substantiated, it can turn out to be illegal.

Granted, as a space baron worth hundreds of billions — accusations typically associated with failing to meet "inclusive" standards might not affect Musk as much as they would, say, an average Jane or Joe who isn't rich.

But the circulating SpaceX letter, headed "an open letter to the Executives of SpaceX," called Musk a "distraction and embarrassment" to the wider community of workers in his company — who directly generate his wealth and success by selling their labor and expertise.

The letter also made three demands, which said "SpaceX must swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon's personal brand," "hold all leadership equally accountable to making SpaceX a great place to work for everyone", and "define and uniformly respond to all forms of unacceptable behavior", according to the Times report.

Despite Shotwell's earlier statements that she will enforce SpaceX's "zero tolerance" standards against employee harassment, it appears there is (or was) disagreement between at least some employees and the c-level officers running it. It's not always great to make quick judgments, but one thing's for sure — we might be witnessing the first hints of how people working for aerospace firms in deep space will interact with their supervisors back on Earth. For better or worse, there's much to ponder about what constitutes an ethical work environment, when the stakes — which to Musk involve saving humanity by making it a multi-planet species — are maximally high.

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