Space

SpaceX fires at least 5 employees over internal letter criticizing CEO Elon Musk

Key Points
  • SpaceX has fired at least five employees involved in circulating a letter around the company that was critical of CEO Elon Musk, two people familiar with the company told CNBC.
  • The open letter was circulated and signed by an unknown number of SpaceX employees earlier this week.
  • Musk is the controlling shareholder of the privately held company, with his trust owning about 78% of SpaceX's voting shares as of last year.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk participates in a postlaunch news conference inside the Press Site auditorium at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30, 2020, following the launch of the agency's SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station.
NASA/Kim Shiflett

SpaceX has fired at least five employees who were involved with circulating a letter around the company that was critical of CEO Elon Musk, according to two people familiar with the company who declined to be named and an internal email from President and COO Gwynne Shotwell.

Shotwell, in a companywide email Thursday, said SpaceX "terminated a number of employees involved" and called "blanketing thousands of people across the company with repeated unsolicited emails" unacceptable, according to copies of the email obtained by CNBC. The open letter, first reported by The Verge, was circulated earlier this week. More than 400 SpaceX employees signed the letter in just under a day and a half, The Verge reported Friday.

"We have too much critical work to accomplish and no need for this kind of overreaching activism," Shotwell wrote, adding the letter "upset many" within the company and "made employees feel uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied."

The letter was addressed to company executives, according to media reports, and described the billionaire's public behavior as "a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment" for SpaceX employees.

The New York Times first reported the SpaceX firings. SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

VIDEO14:5614:56
Why Starship is indispensable for the future of SpaceX

Musk is the controlling shareholder of the privately held company, with his trust owning about 78% of SpaceX's voting shares as of last year. The CEO has created an often eccentric persona in public spheres, particularly on Twitter where he offers commentary and updates on SpaceX and his electric vehicle company, Tesla.

Musk has said he uses Twitter to express himself, comparing his use of the service to how "some people use their hair," and is seeking to acquire the social media company.

During a Twitter all-hands meeting Thursday, Musk said free speech is critical to users of the platform – even if a company is under his private ownership, like SpaceX.

The internal SpaceX letter also referenced recent sexual misconduct allegations against Musk, reported by Business Insider last month. The report said that Musk sexually harassed a SpaceX flight attendant during a private flight, and that the company paid the employee $250,000 for her silence.

Shotwell defended Musk after the misconduct allegations, writing in an email to employees at the time that she believes "the allegations to be false."

In her email Thursday, Shotwell said SpaceX leadership "is more dedicated to ensuring we have a great and ever-improving work environment than any I have seen" in her career. She also emphasized SpaceX has a trio of launches scheduled "within 37 hours" this weekend, as well as ongoing work to support the International Space Station.

"I am sorry for this distraction," Shotwell said. "Please stay focused on the SpaceX mission, and use your time at work to do your best work."