A scathing essay written by nearly two dozen current and former Blue Origin employees paints a grim picture of work conditions at the company and how the burgeoning space race among billionaires is compromising flight safety.
On July 20, 2021, Jeff Bezos, along with three other passengers, rode atop a New Shepard rocket and flew to an altitude of 62 miles above sea level, becoming the second billionaire to reach space. Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by Bezos, had officially entered into the space tourism business, joining Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which had accomplished a similar feat just a few weeks earlier.
The flight beyond the Kármán line was a major milestone for Blue Origin, but the cost of this achievement was considerable, as an essay published in Lioness makes painfully clear. The essay was penned by Alexandra Abrams, former head of the company’s employee communications, and 20 other former and current Blue Origin employees.
The authors make some very serious claims regarding the work culture at the company and how a push to increase the launch frequency of the New Shepard rocket is “seriously compromising flight safety.” Many authors claimed they wouldn’t fly on a Blue Origin vehicle: “And no wonder—we have all seen how often teams are stretched beyond reasonable limits,” they wrote.
The Federal Aviation Administration took notice of the essay, prompting the regulator to review the allegations of lax safety at Blue Origin, as SpaceNews reports. In an email to Gizmodo, the FAA said it “takes every safety allegation seriously, and the agency is reviewing the information.” Blue Origin could be asked to make changes should the review find something worth acting upon. Since 2016, no flights of New Shepard have had any kind of issue (as far as we know).
Claims of ongoing sexism at the Blue Origin workplace were particularly alarming. Senior leaders are “consistently inappropriate with women,” the authors allege, and there’s a “clear bias against women,” who are repeatedly silenced when voicing concerns. As the authors write:
Concerns related to flying New Shepard were consistently shut down, and women were demeaned for raising them. When one man was let go for poor performance, he was allowed to leave with dignity, even a going-away party. Yet when a woman leader who had significantly improved her department’s performance was let go, she was ordered to leave immediately, with security hovering until she exited the building five minutes later.
The authors describe toxic work environments in which employees are pushed to their limits. Blue Origin is openly modeling itself after SpaceX, with memos from senior executives admitting that “burnout was a part of their labor strategy,” according to the essay. Working at Blue Origin can be “dehumanizing,” the authors wrote, with employees “terrified of the potential consequences for speaking out against the wealthiest man on the planet.”
That a problematic work environment exists at Blue Origin is not altogether surprising. As we previously reported, the company has been experiencing an exodus of high-ranking staffers.
The “driving force” of this essay, as the authors point out, has to do with the matter of safety. Prior to Bezos reaching suborbital space, a common question pitched at high-level meetings was: “When will Elon or Branson fly?” As the authors claim, “making progress for Jeff” appeared to “to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule.” The issues raised in this essay make it clear that the billionaire space race is very much real, not some false narrative conjured by the media.
Senior leaders, growing impatient with the few flights being made each year, began to aim for 40 launches in 12 months, the authors claim. The launch cadence was indeed slow; New Shepard flew three times in 2019, once in 2020, and four times thus far in 2021, with the next launch planned for October 12. But as the authors point out, “leadership’s race to launch at such a breakneck speed was seriously compromising flight safety,” and, in the opinion of an engineer who contributed to this essay, “Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far.” A major complaint is that employees are being asked to work excessively long hours and perform work that goes “far beyond what would be manageable for a team double the size.” As the authors allege, senior leaders at Blue Origin are not providing teams with sufficient resources.
“At a minimum, Jeff Bezos and the rest of the leadership at Blue Origin must be held to account, and must learn how to run a respectful, responsible company before they can be permitted to arbitrarily use their wealth and resulting power to create a blueprint for humanity’s future,” the authors conclude. “But beyond that, all of us should collectively, urgently, be raising this question: Should we as a society allow ego-driven individuals with endless caches of money and very little accountability to be the ones to shape that future?”
We reached out to Blue Origin for comment.
“Ms. Abrams was dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations,” according to a Blue Origin spokesperson. “Blue Origin has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind. We provide numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct. We stand by our safety record and believe that New Shepard is the safest space vehicle ever designed or built.”
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith sent an email to staff on Thursday to address the claims made in the essay, as Insider reports.
“It is particularly difficult and painful, for me, to hear claims being levied that attempt to characterize our entire team in a way that doesn’t align with the character and capability that I see at Blue Origin every day,” wrote Smith.
The CEO said the safety concerns raised in the essay were “uninformed and simply incorrect,” and that employees should come to him with their concerns, adding that Blue Origin does not tolerate harassment or discrimination at the workplace.
As noted, the next launch of New Shepard is scheduled for October 12. The second crewed launch of this reusable rocket will include Chris Boshuizen, co-founder of Planet, and Glen de Vries, vice-chair of life sciences and health care at Dassault Systèmes, along with two unnamed passengers.