SpaceX recovery engineer fired for ‘inappropriate faces’ claims racial discrimination

The company’s excuse was that he made inappropriate facial expressions during a group interview.

As a SpaceX engineer, Ajay Reddy worked in the high-stakes recovery program of using ships with big nets stretched above them to capture large pieces falling from the launched rockets.

Recovering these “fairings” to be reused for the next rocket launch saved SpaceX millions of dollars, court documents said.

Reddy’s career at the aerospace manufacturer lasted seven months. The former fairing recovery engineer said he was wrongfully fired in May 2020. This week he sued SpaceX, accusing the company of racial discrimination, paying him less and treating him like a scapegoat because he is an Asian American of Indian descent, according to court documents filed in U.S. District Court’s Orlando division.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

Reddy, who said he was the lone Asian fairing recovery engineer and the only racial minority employee in the recovery organization that employed dozens of engineers and technicians, brought up safety concerns in his lawsuit.

“The two fairing recovery vessels had properties which could easily maim or kill multiple crew members, and very nearly did so on more than one occasion. Reddy was apparently alone in appreciating the severity of the hazards inherent to the design of the system,” his lawsuit said.

Reddy said he proposed “a practical response to the kinds of emergencies that could arise from these design flaws … Management and senior leadership soundly agreed (with) him and directed the immediate implementation of his solution,” his lawsuit said.

The lawsuit does not provide more details on the alleged incidents that put crew members at risk. Reddy’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Reddy claimed two White counterparts who were hired just before him had training opportunities that Reddy missed out on, according to the court documents.

Without training and being included, Reddy said in the lawsuit he felt “humiliated and isolated, and his work performance was sabotaged … Therefore, (Reddy) did make mistakes.”

Higher-ups told Reddy he “lacked safety consciousness and was ‘senseless’ in his efforts,” the lawsuit said.

The company later used those mistakes, Reddy argued, for “defense from litigation.”

Meanwhile, Reddy said his two White colleagues made costly errors.

One of the men “once fouled a maneuver and critically damaged a fairing. (Reddy), who was hundreds of miles away and had no control over the operation, was reprimanded for truthfully saying that such incidents were known to happen. (The man) who ruined millions of dollars of equipment, was not punished,” the lawsuit said.

Another time, the two White engineers used the wrong hardware during their work on fairing components which damaged them and added risk to the mission, the lawsuit said.

Reddy called it “reckless abuse of spaceflight hardware” but said SpaceX leaders didn’t discipline them.

“Shockingly, management allowed (Reddy) to be rebuked for spending the brief amount of time it took to identify and resolve the problem,” the lawsuit said.

Reddy said he was terminated last year shortly after he complained to Human Resources that he felt he was being harassed and missing out on training that hurt his work performance.

The company’s excuse for firing him, Reddy said in the lawsuit, was that he made inappropriate facial expressions during a group interview event, an accusation Reddy denies.

“This bizarre pretext, that (Reddy) made someone feel uncomfortable with his face, is both a fabrication and a declaration of animus toward (Reddy’s) appearance,” the lawsuit said.

After he was fired, Reddy said he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations in June 2020.

The EEOC declined to comment this week, saying any possible complaints would be confidential, said agency spokeswoman Christine Saah Nazer. The state agency has not made a decision regarding his complaint, Reddy’s suit said.

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is an award-winning journalist based in Orlando. She covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel. Her previous newspaper stops include the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Toledo Blade, Kalamazoo Gazette and Elkhart Truth as well as an internship covering the nation’s capital for the Chicago Tribune. For fun, she runs marathons. She gets her training from chasing a toddler around. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @GabrielleRusson .


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