This week, SpaceX will make history as its first manned flight will launch from Cape Canaveral on Thursday with the intent of delivering 2 astronauts – Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken – to the International Space Station (ISS). The crew capsule will remain docked to the ISS for an as yet undetermined amount of time, then ferry the astronauts back to earth, splashdown style. NASA is partnering with SpaceX to see this mission to success, but it will be the first private company launch into orbit, as well as the first (non-tourist) manned launch from the US since 2011. This is certainly exciting news, and will no doubt attract a lot of media attention, due to the novelty of the event and due to the truly weird, truly controversial SpaceX founder, Elon Musk.
What draws my attention to this, though, is the worrisome framing of this mission I have seen in a few high profile articles about the launch. Readers may remember that I am very interested in organizational culture, especially at NASA (read here and here), and in particular, the way their organizational culture lead to mistakes and tragedy like the Challenger accident. I am far less familiar with the organizational culture at SpaceX/Tesla/Musk’s Life, but given the behavior of Musk himself, I would not be surprised to learn it was Not Good. I just don’t have any research to go on either way.
What I do have are some articles discussing this launch that spend an inordinate amount of time on aesthetics and almost-complete testing on key components of the flight matériel. This all seems foreboding to me, so I’d like to break down the concerns I have about the way this mission is being framed in some media.Continue reading