At least five employees were fired by the private rocket company SpaceX after drafting and circulating an open letter criticizing founder Elon Musk and calling on executives at the startup to make the company’s work culture more inclusive, according to two people familiar with the matter.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that SpaceX had fired employees associated with the letter, citing three employees with knowledge of the situation.
It had not detailed the number of employees who had been terminated.
SpaceX’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, sent an email saying the company had investigated and “terminated a number of employees involved” with the letter, the New York Times said.
The newspaper said Shotwell’s email said employees involved with circulating the letter had been fired for making other staff feel “uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied, and/or angry because the letter pressured them to sign onto something that did not reflect their views”.
Reuters could not independently confirm that report.
The earlier open letter to SpaceX executives seen by Reuters had called Musk a “distraction and embarrassment” to the company he founded.
In a list of three demands, the letter said: “SpaceX must swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon’s personal brand.”
It added: “Hold all leadership equally accountable to making SpaceX a great place to work for everyone” and “define and uniformly respond to all forms of unacceptable behavior”.
Billionaire Musk is pursuing a $44bn bid for Twitter and has made clear his support of freer controls on speech on the site.
On Thursday, he told Twitter employees the platform should allow “pretty outrageous things” as long as the content is not illegal.
Musk, also head of the electric automaker Tesla Inc, has been in the headlines and featured in late-night comedy monologues in recent months, including over his quest to take over Twitter, his criticism of Democrats and a reported allegation of sexual harassment, which Musk has denied in a Twitter post.
The open letter at SpaceX, first reported by the Verge, was drafted by SpaceX employees in recent weeks and shared as an attachment in an internal “Morale Boosters” group chat that brings together thousands of employees, a person familiar with the matter said, asking not to be named.
Musk, also the company’s chief engineer, has been viewed as a central figure in many of SpaceX’s high-profile successes, such as pioneering the reuse of orbital rocket boosters and bringing back routine human spaceflight from US soil after a nine-year hiatus.
Shotwell, who leads much of the company’s day-to-day business, has said she will enforce SpaceX’s “zero tolerance” standards against employee harassment.
Founded by Musk in 2002, SpaceX has played a central role in the recent US space program.