Pythom’s Risky Business: The Ethics of Safely Testing Rockets

Pythom’s Risky Business: The Ethics of Safely Testing Rockets

There should be some acknowledgment that SpaceX’s total Falcon 9 launches recently surpassed the United Launch Alliance’s launch total. ULA’s latest launch placed the company at 149 launches. SpaceX’s latest Starlink launch places its total at 151 launches. The company’s 150th launch was a crewed mission to the ISS. That other reusable launch system, the space shuttle, managed merely 135 launches in its thirty years of operations. Not too shabby, SpaceX!

That’s…Not Smart.

If you didn’t get a chance to see it, not too long ago, rocket startup Pythom Space posted a video that provided an intriguing view into the way the company works and thinks. The video's focus is the test of a small rocket. However, what caught the attention of many video watchers, including myself, was how the company tested the rocket. In a nutshell, it wasn’t the smartest way to conduct the test. (Also, I’m a little surprised that California, the state where the test occurred, even let it happen.)

Others, such as Ars Technica’s Eric Berger, have provided some pretty good write-ups of the test and the company’s reaction to the public’s mainly negative response to the video. I suggest reading his article, as the responses are priceless–in a train-wreck way. His Twitter feed is an even better source to see all of the responses to the test. According to Berger, the company replaced the original video with an edited version. It was accompanied by a very defensive explanation for why some of the many problems seemed worse than they were. One person kindly created a list for those wondering what those problems are. And that’s just for starters.

The company also held and posted a Zoom conference to respond to the criticism it faced.

Lacking A Firm Code of Ethics

Analyzing the company’s actions starts with a question: why do Pythom’s leaders seem to believe all of the actions it took leading up to and during that particular test were okay? Was it to save money? Was it because they felt hurried? Were the potential risks just not talked about? Was it worried about a particular technology being stolen once the video went online? Did the company believe that it was behind the competition’s efforts?

Whatever the reasons, would they be acceptable if someone had been hurt or killed during the test?

However, we don’t have to guess the reasons why Pythom did what it did. The company has volunteered several rationales in its attempt to defend its test. Aside from the apparent safety lessons that the company’s management appears to be firmly ignoring, its responses and rationales for conducting its business the way it does provides further enlightenment. The data will prove invaluable for those who are paying attention.

Pythom’s rationales fall under a topic rarely discussed in the commercial space industry–ethics. I submit that Pythom’s main problem comes from its ethical code (or perhaps lack thereof), which would have driven the decisions on how to conduct the test. Believe it or not, a firm code of ethics is necessary for a company and its employees. Many people (and entrepreneurs) can learn from watching the company’s video AND its responses to criticism.

There are several good online reference resources for those wondering how ethics fit in business (including this one). There are very practical reasons for a business to have a firm code of ethics no matter what. A company’s code of ethics attracts people of a like mindset. People will come to understand that a company will be reliable when it has strong ethics. It will react in reliable ways. It will behave fairly. Trust in a company builds up through firm ethics. A code of ethics is inherently respectful of other people and businesses. If it’s constantly used and referenced organically, it will become second nature to the company and its employees. The code guides the default behavior and decisions of a company and its employees–ESPECIALLY when both face difficult circumstances.

However, some people and companies choose not to have a firm code of ethics. Similar to a conscience, having solid ethics just gets in the way. We see a lack of firm ethics in decisions to field some of the services that technology companies offer consumers–the things that make the companies, such as Facebook or Google, feel creepy. They might not be breaking the law, but they violate community norms and rationalize those violations however they can to appear less creepy.

There are at least four ways individuals and companies avoid the “grey areas” requiring ethical courage. The first is just to stick to a black and white point of view–it’s either good or bad. Unfortunately, it’s a dogmatic approach and one we see used far too often in daily life. The second way around ethics is described as “looking out for numero uno.” The third justification is that “everyone does it.” And the fourth is simply ascribing ethics as a different point of view. (All justifications are described far more eloquently in the book “Launching New Ventures: An Entrepreneurial Approach” by Kathleen Allen.)

Everyone Does It

Returning to the company’s response, some of the rationalizations of one of the company’s founders align with at least a few of the above ways to dismiss ethical considerations. Near the end of the response, for example, we see this as one reason why the company tested as it did:

“Virgin had several accidents, including fatalities. ABL blew up their second stage last month, Astra have been blowing up more rockets than we can count. What puts them and Pythom apart is neither that we are safer or more unsafe. The difference is we are more transparent.”

That sounds like an “everyone does it'' rationale. Pythom justifies its dubious behavior by pointing to the tragedies within other companies (which is bad form already). The company maintains that its transparency, which the (now edited) video provides, merely shows what the other rocket startups do (but won't admit), allowing people to stand close to a running rocket engine behind a pile of “solid gravel.” It indicates that using the shoulders of three or four people to carry a rocket around is something it has in common with those other companies. I believe that either case is not how other rocket companies test their rockets.

When those companies did experience blowups, what did not come to the fore in the reports afterward was the totally unbelievably unsafe way they conducted those tests. In Virgin’s case, it took an agency dedicated to safety to point out the unsafe way in which the spacecraft was operated. Deviating even more from Pythom’s narrative, Virgin didn’t say it was a risk-taker and that the way it conducted the test was just fine. Instead, it changed the equipment on its spacecraft.

As an aside, if those companies aren’t transparent in their testing, how does Pythom’s team know enough detail about their safety procedures to state it’s neither ‘safer or more unsafe” than those companies?

We Take the Risks because…

The other justification is the last half of Pythom’s response above:

“We hope the community can come to appreciate it and that we can continue to show things the way they really are in rocketering; exciting and sometimes a little bit dangerous.”

According to Pythom, excitement and a little bit of danger are a necessary part of the state of the art of rocketeering. This type of justification happens so often that there’s a pre-defined subset of cowardly ethics describing it: pushing the legal limit. This is when a company routinely chooses to come very close to the edge of legality (and, in this case, safety) because breaking the rules and being dangerous is what an entrepreneurial company does (it just so happens to allow them to skirt the ethics of those decisions). It looks to be a combination of “looking out for numero uno'' and “everyone does it.” One other company that used that justification was Swarm Technologies when it deployed its satellites into orbit despite not getting permission to do so. In that case, it crossed that edge and was fined for its risk-taking.

That danger Pythom references comes with an important qualification in the minds of its founders, one mentioned earlier in the response:

“The two of us, Pythom founders and authors of this entry, have done four unguided expeditions to Everest, three unguided and unsupported full-length expeditions to the South- and North Poles, and sailed across the Atlantic from Europe to South America. During our expeditions, we lost many friends to the elements, and Pythom's bird logo, a chough, is to remind us of those brave women and men. This is the only bird that flies high up on Everest, all of the way to the summit. Old mountaineers say they are the souls of dead climbers.”

That statement says that rocket safety and risk procedures are a point of view. Their expedition experience somehow gives them the ability to judge how to lift loads and prep test launch areas. It also indicates a fatalistic view, which acknowledges danger, no matter how comprehensive the preparation, so why bother with safety? If it were only the founders involved during the test, then perhaps that view is acceptable. But leading a team of motivated engineers and builders requires more consideration than just the bravado Pythom’s founders are throwing around.

“We didn’t know…”

Other data that makes the company founder’s statements so ethically questionable is its initial press release of the event. The first two sentences demonstrate the uncertainty surrounding the test, but the whole first paragraph is illuminating:

“We didn’t know what would happen. It was the first attempt. So many loose parts had to get along. Chances were nothing would happen at all; total silence. Or it would blow to pieces on the pad. Wait, what if it takes off? We added 4 heavy chains last minute to the elastic rope. Best case, the rocket would ignite, and maybe even rise a few inches, before toppling over.”

According to that paragraph, the company had no idea what would happen. The elastic rope doesn’t give readers confidence in the test’s design. And the “last minute” addition of chains to the test provides little confidence in what should be established and tested procedures. Yet, despite that uncertainty, the company allowed at least three people to get close enough to feel the test’s energy and danger literally.

Certainly, an ethical code includes doing the right thing. That could be ensuring a plan is in place for the safety and well-being of employees during a rocket engine test. The plans include exercises to get reactions down pat for different scenarios, such as the rocket tanks exploding, the engine disintegrating, the rocket falling over, etc. However, we don’t see those basic procedures as people comically run away from the rocket in all the wrong directions. As the company uses a pickup truck to lever the rocket to a vertical position, we don't see that. Even an 8-page checklist for setting up a rocket and igniting it doesn’t demonstrate that commitment (I’ve processed longer checklists for resetting circuit breakers).

We see Pythom doubling down on its questionable decisions by responding with questionable and weak rationalizations for marketing damage control (while putting people at unnecessary risk). For those companies or investors still considering dealing with Pythom, its ethical flexibility may not be a big deal for them. But the signs are there in the company’s test and its responses. It’s one thing to move fast and break things when referring to software, but rockets require respect, and when they break, stuff gets real.

People were lucky none of the gravel blew across to poke an eye out. They were extremely fortunate not to have the rocket fall over while still running. One fatality, no matter the circumstances, is tragic. But an avoidable fatality is tragic and criminal. Both would result in investors imitating the same action as those in the video: running away in all directions.