Tobey’s teachable moment, revisted


a college lecture gone viral cost the ula exec his job. an investigation finds the incendiary comments were just hot air.

It was the recording that shook up the space industry. In mid-March, Brett Tobey, a vice president with United Launch Alliance, gave a talk at the University of Colorado. Unbeknownst to him, one attendee recorded his comments and, within hours, posted them on the Internet.

 Soon, everyone could hear Tobey’s incendiary claims, including that the Air Force had worked to “lean the field” to ULA’s advantage in a launch competition that the company ultimately decided not to bid on.

Tobey’s comments reverberated from Capitol Hill, where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) mentioned them in a hearing, to the Pentagon, where the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General soon announced it would investigate the claims Tobey made.

That investigation, released by the inspector general Dec. 8, turned up… nothing. Investigators looked at four separate claims Tobey made, including the “lean the field” allegation and decision not to bid on the launch contract, as well as claims about “hiding” RD-180 engines and alleged conversations between Pentagon and Lockheed Martin about trying to “silence” McCain.

The inspector general reviewed documents and interviewed key officials, including the chief executives of Lockheed Martin and ULA and the commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. In every case, the investigators found no evidence to support any of Tobey’s claims about launch competitions or RD-180 access.

Investigators also spoke with Tobey, who resigned from ULA within days of the recording’s release in March. Tobey, they said in their report, “recanted the assertions he made” in that original presentation.

“I told the story with drama and my, you know, basically not perception, but my postulation of what might be happening at levels that I have no connection to,” he told investigators. “I postulated about a lot of things that were happening not based upon fact, having no indication that the comments that I was making could go viral.”

Tobey never expected his comments to make it outside the university classroom where he spoke. “My comments were made in a classroom environment to a — what I believed was a private set of students and professors,” he said. He added he was “very sorry” those comments became public.

So why inject so much “drama” into a talk to students? Tobey said he was worried that, otherwise, they wouldn’t pay attention. “If I had spent an hour and told them about my responsibility of reshaping ULA’s workforce and a standardization of tools, I don’t think I would have an engaged audience,” he said, choosing to play fast and loose with the facts to “keep them engaged and off of their iPhones.”

That drama may not have been necessary. ULA has been one of the most interesting companies in the industry to watch in the last few years, forced to deal with external pressures that include the threatened cutoff of RD-180 engines and the rise of SpaceX and its low-cost launch vehicles. How the company has adapted, from its plans to develop the next-generation Vulcan launcher to rolling out its expansive vision of 1,000 people living and working in space in 30 years, should be interesting enough for any college student who decides to sit through an hour-long seminar. The topic of his talk, after all, was “ULA’s Competitive Transformation.”

Ironically, Tobey may have been done in by the tool he was trying to combat with his postulation. The source of the recording remains unknown, but it’s quite possible the individual who made it used his or her smartphone.

By trying to keep students off of their iPhones, he only encouraged one to use theirs.