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Fri, Oct 08, 2021

Employee Group Raises Safety Concerns for Blue Origin

Group Essay Cites “Growing Unease” During Launches

A group of self-described former and current employees of Blue Origin released an essay citing issues they claim endanger the future of commercial spaceflight through a toxic corporate culture and safety-ambivalent leadership.

In a release penned by Alexandra Abrams, Former Head of Blue Origin Employee Communications, and 20 others who have worked at the company, the group makes a series of claims they believe merit outside attention for the good of the industry. Ranging from a sexist, toxic culture dominated by white males; overworked and underfunded teams, and a focus on meeting timetables in the civilian space race over adequate safety precautions.

Abrams’ essay describes a patriarchal, toxic work culture that stifles the comfort and safety of female employees with "a particular brand of sexism", untouchable senior staff immune to harassment, and nearly impossible expectations all add up to what the essay describes as a reflective of "the worst of the world we live in now, and sorely needs to change". Examples of egregious include a former executive consistently demeaning and condescending female staff, referring to them with diminutives such as "sweetheart" or "baby girl", and inquiring about their dating lives. His behavior was infamous within the company, such that new female hires would be warned to stay away from him. Another exec was rumored to have such strong ties to company founder Jeff Bezos that it took a physical groping incident to finally force the company's hand in terminating him. 

"We found many company leaders to be unapproachable and showing clear bias against women." The essay states, describing an instance of one former NASA astronaut and Blue Origin senior leader instructing a group of women working on a project: "You should ask my opinion because I am a man". The employee group seems to take particular issue with the company's mission statement and corporate optimism about its place in the future. "What are the blind spots of an organization whose stated mission is to enable humanity's better future, yet is rife with sexism?"


Staff issues aside, the whistleblowers allege a similar culture to that found in the congressional report on the Challenger disaster, one that stifles concerns that do not fit into timetables and ignores safety issues when brought up by overworked, underfunded staff. One engineer said "Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far." Many of the co-signing authors say they would not themselves fly on a company vehicle. One team assigned to operate and maintain the New Shepard's subsystems was allegedly too small to be adequate for safe operation, even at twice its actual size. The workforce is described as “more than 3,600 employees” strong, but “mostly male and overwhelmingly white. One-hundred percent of the senior technical and program leaders are men.” 

The essay cites overwork as yet another vulnerability in the company, with "employees often told to 'be careful with Jeff's money', to 'not ask for more,' and 'be grateful'." Mission creep, always a persistent issue in any clean-sheet project, is frequent in weekly meetings, they state. "We have seen Bezos and CEO Smith frequently broaden the scope of existing projects, sometimes even adding more programs, but without authorizing the needed increase in budget or personnel." They believe that Blue Origin takes a toll on the mental health of many in its operations department. They cite alleged company memo’s demanding managers “get more out of our employees” and that they should consider it a “privilege to be a part of history.”. The essay specifically cites mental deterioration resulting from “experiences they could only describe as dehumanizing, and are terrified of the potential consequences for speaking out against the wealthiest man on the planet. Others have experienced periods of suicidal thoughts after having their passion for space manipulated in such a toxic environment.” 

Notwithstanding the concerns of workplace comfort, diversity, and health, the group says that safety “is the driving force for coming forward with this essay. “At Blue Origin, a common question during high-level meeting was, ‘When will Elon or Branson fly?’ Competing with other billionaires...seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule.” The report alleges that company leaders showed impatience with only a few launches on the New Shepard’s schedule each year. Their goal, according to Abrams, was to scale up to more than 40. She alludes to the government’s investigation of the Challenger incident, part of which was attributed to the demanding schedule of 24 flights per year. Continuing the theme of a shortfall in funding and personnel, the report states “We have seen a pattern of decision-making that often prioritizes execution speed and cost reduction over the appropriate resourcing to ensure quality. In 2018, when one team lead took over, the team had documented more than 1,000 problem reports related to the engines that power Blue Origin’s rockets, which had never been addressed.”

The company’s response was quick to point out Abrams’ termination for continued issues involving Federal Export Controls and reiterated its commitment to diversity, and touted their 24/7 anonymous hotline, promising to investigate any new claims of misconduct. 

Abrams’ group ends their report. “In our experience, Blue Origin’s culture sits on a foundation that ignores the plight of our planet, turns a blind eye to sexism, is not sufficiently attuned to safety concerns, and silences those who seek to correct wrongs. That’s not the world we should be creating here on Earth, and certainly not as our springboard to a better one...Should we as a society allow ego-driven individuals with endless caches of money and very little accountability be the ones to shape that future?” 

FMI: www.BlueOrigin.com



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