Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos commemorates the first crewed flight of his company, which he was on as a passenger on, on July 20, 2021.
Blue Origin is currently facing harsh allegations regarding its culture, safety and suborbital launch system New Shepard, with its second crewed flight just two weeks away.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is currently examining concerns regarding vehicle safety, which were raised in a detailed essay published Thursday by the Lioness. The essay contains 21 Blue Origin employees from the past and present, with one exception. They raise several concerns about Blue Origin's culture. These include allegations of sexism and corporate suppression of speech, disregard for sustainability, and a tendency to prioritize safety over safety when it involves New Shepard.
Space.com was informed by a spokesperson for the FAA that the FAA takes safety allegations seriously and is currently reviewing them."
Photo: Blue Origin's 1st New Shepard Passenger Launch with Jeff Bezos
These allegations are made two months after Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos rode the suborbital launch vehicle of his company on an exultant 10-minute-long flight. This was just days after Amazon announced that the next crewed missions would launch on October 12.
The company identified two other passengers on the Oct. 12 flight as well: Chris Boshuizen (a cofounder of Planet Earth-observation company) and Glen de Vries (vice chair for life sciences, healthcare, at a French software firm). According to De Vries, he wasn't concerned about safety during the flight.
He told The New York Times that he is confident in Blue Origin's safety record, spacecraft, track record and safety program. "I have been to the launch site and met people from every level of the company. Everything I saw was indicative of a great culture and team."
The company issued a statement in which it denied the accusations made in the Lioness article. Space.com was contacted by a spokesperson for Blue Origin, who stated that the company has zero tolerance for harassment or discrimination of any type. We offer many avenues to employees, including an anonymous hotline that is available 24/7. Any new allegations of misconduct will be investigated promptly. We are proud of our safety record, and believe New Shepard to be the most safe space vehicle ever created or manufactured."
New Shepard, a reusable rocket and capsule combo, has flown 17 flights without any problems.
Blue Origin's launch location in West Texas is where the New Shepard rocket & capsule took off. Blue Origin image credit
CNBC obtained an email from CEO Bob Smith containing a message to employees. He wrote that he wanted to "reassure" them. "First, the New Shepard Team went through a meticulous and painstaking process in order to certify our vehicle for First Human Flight. According to CNBC, he stated that anyone who claims otherwise is simply uninformed and incorrect. "It should be stated emphatically that we do not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment."
This essay is a harsh indictment on the company's culture. It marks Lioness' second publication. The company, which bills itself as a "storytelling site" and works with media to organize coverage of its features, published the essay. Alexandra Abrams (who worked as a communications specialist at Blue Origin from June 2017 through November 2019 according to her LinkedIn profile) is the only one named publicly.
The Blue Origin spokesperson stated that Abrams was fired for cause two years back after being warned repeatedly about federal export control regulations. Abrams claims she was told by leadership not to trust her.
Abrams gave a few more details about the essay in a CBS Mornings interview. He noted that 13 of the 21 are "engineers" or "technical" personnel. Abrams stated that they cover all major programs and also have different levels. She later mentioned that the group "include[es] very high-ranking people."
Blue Origin has had the good fortune to have nothing happen so far. Blue Origin is being manned by an anonymous engineer
Although the essay covers a wide range of topics, the authors emphasized safety as their motivator, calling it "for many...the driving force behind coming forward with this essay." The essay portrays a corporate culture that values safety and risk management.
"Some of us felt with the resources and personnel available, leaders raced to launch at such an accelerated speed was seriously compromising flight security," the authors wrote. They compared the situation to NASA's environment after the Challenger spacecraft explosion in 1986, which occurred 73 seconds after launch.
The authors stated that concerns about flying New Shepards were repeatedly shut down and that women were demeaning for raising them. According to an engineer who signed up for this essay, Blue Origin has been fortunate that nothing has happened. Many of the essay's writers say that they wouldn't fly in a Blue Origin car.
Although the letter does not address specific allegations, three items stand out as a source of concern.
One refers to the backlog of over 1,000 unresolved "problem reports", in 2018, regarding "the engines that drive Blue Origin's rockets." According to the company's website, the engine is most likely its BE-3. It uses a mixture of liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen, and made its first flight in 2015. According to the website, the company continues testing a new BE-3 model for its orbital vehicle, New Glenn. Blue Origin also builds the delayed BE-4, which is still being tested and is slated to be used on New Glenn, United Launch Alliance's Vulcan and the BE-7.
Blue Origin's BE-4 engine during a hot-fire test. Blue Origin image credit
The essay writers pointed out that insufficient staffing was being provided for a specific aspect of New Shepard. They wrote that the New Shepard team responsible for operating and maintaining one of its subsystems had only a few engineers who worked long hours. Their responsibilities were, in our opinion, far beyond what would be possible for a team twice as large. They covered everything from root causes of failures to regular preventative maintenance of the rocket's systems.
The essayists also pointed out steps that were not in order during New Shepard’s development. They wrote that many people did not believe leadership would prioritize sound systems engineering practices. "Systems engineering products for New Shepard were developed after the aircraft was built and flown, rather than during the design phase. This impacted verification efforts.
CBS Mornings' Abrams said that while working at Blue Origin, she raised safety concerns from technical staff. She was rejected by management. "Oftentimes, I would go to leaders and ask them how they would think about the safety and risk concerns I heard from engineers close to the vehicle. Abrams said. Abrams said, "Often, the answer would be, "Oh, well that person in particular doesn’t have a high sufficient risk tolerance."
The interview reveals that the co-authors submitted the essay to FAA prior to publication to raise safety concerns.
Safety: Schedule and budget
Both the essay and Abrams interview with CBS connect the downplaying risks to the company's wider culture. You cannot have both a culture that is safe and one that is fearful at the same moment. Abrams stated that they are incompatible.
Abrams and her coauthors believe that the company's blas safety policy was developed in response to the "billionaire Space Race" idea between three private space companies, Elon Musk SpaceX, Richard Branson Virgin Galactic, and Bezos Blue Origin.
CBS Mornings' Abrams said that the atmosphere at Blue Origin was welcoming when she first joined. However, it soon became sour. Abrams stated that Blue Origin was smooth, steady, and slow. But Jeff [Bezos] began to get impatient, and Elon [Musk] was getting ahead. "Then, we felt this increasing pressure and impatience which would definitely filter down to leadership."
Abrams said that safety seemed to have been more important at that time than competition when he was asked.
Bezos' personal priorities and safety lapses are also discussed in the essay. Blue Origin was a place where high-ranking executives asked the same question: "When will Elon or Branson fly ?,'"?" "Competing against other billionaires and making progress for Jeff seemed to have taken precedence over safety concerns that could have slowed the schedule down."
(Bezos and Musk's rivalry may be particularly intense as the billionaires have traded barbs over the years.
View of the New Shepard rocket, and its capsule, as they roll out to the launchpad. Blue Origin, image credit
The group also points out other factors they believe contribute to safety deprivation.
They spoke of a budget-conscious culture that stressed the importance of keeping costs low, even for more ambitious projects. They wrote that employees are frequently told to "be careful with Jeff’s money", to "not ask for more" and to be grateful. Both Abrams' comments and the essay point out that employees are being forced to sign non-disclosure agreements.
They also identified diversity weaknesses and "a particular brand" of sexism, which was also reflected at high company levels despite their idealistic goals. They wrote that the majority of the workforce committed to creating this future "for all" is male and overwhelmingly black. "One-hundred% of the top technical and program leaders in senior positions are men." Two unnamed senior figures made sexist comments and there was a clear bias against women in leadership, as evidenced by the treatment of employees who have left.
In the essay, Bezos accuses Bezos and the company of dismissing environmental concerns.
The essay focuses on company leadership in general and the culture it has created. There are no specific allegations against Bezos. However, Abrams did mention him specifically during the CBS Mornings interview.
She said, "I think Jeff would agree with me that he is the person that we all believed he was"
Blue Origin's publicity blues
Blue Origin's essay is yet another blow to its reputation. It appears to be in deep trouble with rival billionaire-founded companies in the space industry.
SpaceX and the company are fighting over a highly sought-after contract for NASA's Human Landing System, (HLS). This component is designed to transport astronauts from lunar orbit onto the moon's surface. SpaceX may be able to get it in 2024.
NASA officials previously stated that they would prefer to fund more than one concept in HLS funding. NASA decided to fund the development work of the Blue Origin-led National Team or third entrant in this competition by funding only SpaceX in April 2021. NASA had received less funding from Congress than it had requested. Blue Origin filed a protest with NASA's internal Office of Inspector General. Dynetics also did so. Blue Origin sued NASA after that tactic was abandoned.
SpaceX and the agency cannot continue to work on HLS until November. The objections will result in little work even six months after the contract was announced. In July, Bezos wrote an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, offering to cover some costs for a Blue Origin HLS programme in-house, and raising many complaints about the contract.
Even Bezos' flight, which was its most successful flight to date, raised eyebrows. Blue Origin launched a bitter public relations campaign comparing the two systems after Branson declared that he would fly Virgin Galactic's suborbital tourist system just over a week prior to Bezos's announced flight date.
The company's West Texas launch location is near where a reusable New Shepard rocket will touch down. Blue Origin, image credit
Perhaps such efforts weren't surprising to the Lioness essay writers.
The authors stated that billionaires might like to portray themselves as altruistic and use their resources for humanity's benefit. However, we believe that much of this image is a fabrication of public relations teams, supported by ego.
The essay authors point out that billionaires are happy to fund space exploration. They argue that space exploration is best funded by billionaires. But it's important that we consider the larger implications of an environment such as the one Bezos claims to have created for us.
The essay states that Blue Origins culture is based on a foundation that ignores our planet's plight, isn't sufficiently sensitive to safety concerns, and silences those seeking to right wrongs. This is not the kind of world we should be building here on Earth. It's certainly not our way to a better one.