A former Space Exploration Technologies Corp. technician told a jury he was fired for complaining to management that rocket-building test protocols weren’t followed and results were falsified, jeopardizing the safety of eventual manned trips into orbit.
Jason Blasdell claims he took his concerns as high as SpaceX founder and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk in the months before he was terminated in 2014, purportedly for being “disruptive.”
A Los Angeles state court jury will be asked to decide whether Blasdell had good reason to believe testing documents were falsified and whether his firing was unjustified.
“He went up the chain of command as he had learned in the Marines was the proper procedure,” Blasdell’s lawyer, Carney Shegerian, told jurors in his opening statement Tuesday. “He had nothing personal to benefit from this other than to do the right thing.”
SpaceX made misrepresentations to the federal government, cut corners in areas where safety was concerned and labeled Blasdell “insubordinate” for pressing his concerns, Shegerian said.
California Superior Court Judge William Fahey has ruled that the jury won’t be second-guessing the scientific decisions of SpaceX’s engineers or the business judgment of its managers. The trial is expected to take two weeks.
“Jason Blasdell is not a whistle-blower and this is not a whistle-blower case,” SpaceX’s lawyer, Lynne Hermle, said in her opening statement.
He never observed or conducted any unlawful testing of rocket parts, never complained about unlawful testing, and never brought any concerns about unlawful testing to federal authorities, Hermle told jurors.
Blasdell was fired because his job performance had become unacceptable and his fellow employees had become worried about their safety because of him, according to the lawyer.
SpaceX plans to fly 20 to 24 missions in 2017 for customers that include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and commercial satellite operators. The company has contracts with NASA valued at $4.2 billion to resupply the International Space Station using an unmanned Dragon spacecraft and to ferry astronauts there with a version of Dragon that is capable of carrying crews.
Blasdell sued Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX two years after he was fired on April 1, 2014. He had worked at the private company for more than three years, testing avionic components of Falcon 9 launch vehicles and the Dragon spacecraft, according to his complaint.
He alleges that his managers pressured technicians to deviate from written test procedures and to sign off on tests of rocket parts that hadn’t been conducted according to protocols.
These practices “were extremely dangerous and could possibly lead to a damaged or faulty part ending up in a SpaceX rocket, which could result in a rocket exploding in orbit, and worse, could result in the catastrophic loss of human life,” according to Blasdell’s complaint.
Blasdell said his managers minimized his concerns in part because they didn’t want to slow down production. He eventually met with Musk in early 2014 to complain that employees were signing off on procedures they didn’t follow and that he didn’t want to follow along. Musk said he would look into it and never followed up with Blasdell, according to the complaint.
“Managers would acknowledge the problems but they wouldn’t get fixed,” when he voiced his concerns about the tests compliance with government contracts, Blasdell testified Tuesday under questioning by his lawyer.
The former employee was precluded by the judge from speculating whether other SpaceX technicians were falsifying test results.
Fahey earlier granted the company’s request to throw out Blasdell’s claim that the company defamed him by calling him disruptive.