Are SpaceX employees complacent – or is it Elon?

SpaceX rocket explosion June 28, 2015 – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M University

Elon Musk says the reason for the recent explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on a supply mission to the International Space Station under NASA contract may have been due to employee complacency, “resting on their laurels.”  See articles here and here.

My immediate reaction, shared by my NASA colleagues, is that employees cannot become complacent unless management is complacent.  Musk needs to own the fact that the “buck stops here” at his desk.  Does he have a desk?  Who knows about these modern CEOs, children mostly, petulant and unwilling to admit someone else might know something.

Elon says this is a valuable lesson that will benefit the company.  So, his strategy is to learn everything from scratch?  Not from other people’s mistakes?  How about learning from mistakes when he is carrying humans?  Will you be the first to ride?

Elon is unaware of the crash rate equation.  I sent him a copy of my book on the subject, developed from 42 years experience in the space business, with a simple, unified approach anyone can understand and use to decide how much resources to apply to verification and reliability efforts.  Employees judge the seriousness of their boss, and whether they should be “complacent,” by how many resources are allocated to a priority, and whether the boss is complacent about it.  No one survives who is complacent when the boss is not.  No one believes the boss is serious without application of resources.

The crash rate equation relates value of the mission and cost of the crashes to the crash rate.  Elon is minimizing the cost of this crash by his talk, which will lead to more crashes.  Perhaps delivering supplies to NASA is not really important to him?  Unless he applies resources and eliminates both in himself and his employees the idea that safety comes without cost, then someday he will be explaining that a few astronauts knew the risk, that the accident was unfortunate, but they will “learn from it” and move ahead.

Richard Branson has already had to make this sort of speech.  I sent him a copy of the book, too.  Nothing.  If any of you readers know how to reach these guys, give them a heads up.


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