01 October 2021 News

FAA investigating Blue Origin safety procedures after open letter from ex-employees

An essay penned by  21 former and current employees of Blue Origin criticises the space firm citing a culture of sexism and discrimination while suggesting corners in safety are cut. Image: BO
An essay penned by 21 former and current employees of Blue Origin criticises the space firm citing a culture of sexism and discrimination while suggesting corners in safety are cut. Image: BO

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it is reviewing allegations about safety issues at Blue Origin after a former employee and 20 anonymous staff raised concerns in a critical essay published online.

The essay, whose only publicly known author is Blue Origin’s former head of employee communications Alexandra Abrams, accuses Jeff Bezos and his space company of creating a sexist, toxic working environment where employees are overworked and safety concerns are rife.

“We are a group of 21 former and current employees of Blue Origin. Many of us have spent our careers dreaming of helping to launch a crewed rocket into space and seeing it safely touch back down on Earth. But when Jeff Bezos flew to space this July, we did not share his elation. Instead, many of us watched with an overwhelming sense of unease. Some of us couldn’t bear to watch at all”, says the report published on lioness.co, an online platform that often works with whistleblowers.

The essay goes on to say that safety concerns about Blue Origin’s New Shepard crewed suborbital flight, which took place on 20 July, were dismissed in an atmosphere that discourages dissent and free discussion.

“This suppression of dissent brings us to the matter of safety, which for many of us is the driving force for coming forward with this essay. At Blue Origin, a common question during high-level meetings was, “When will Elon or Branson fly?” Competing with other billionaires—and “making progress for Jeff”—seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule”, the essay reports.“In the opinion of an engineer who has signed on to this essay, “Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far”, the essay adds.

The FAA has responded to the remarks made this week, and said it "takes every safety allegation seriously, and the agency is reviewing the information".

The safety concerns are just one aspect of the essay however. The authors behind the essay suggest issues relating to sexism are commonplace.

“Numerous senior leaders have been known to be consistently inappropriate with women”, the authors say adding that another former executive frequently treated women in a condescending and demeaning manner, calling them “baby girl,” “baby doll,” or “sweetheart” and inquiring about their dating lives.

“His inappropriate behavior was so well known that some women at the company took to warning new female hires to stay away from him, all while he was in charge of recruiting employees…

It took him physically groping a female subordinate for him to finally be let go”, the authors write.

The damning essay comes less than two weeks before the next Blue Origin crewed flight. Scheduled for launch on 12 October, New Shepard is expected to loft Chris Boshuizen, co-founder of Planet, and Glen de Vries, vice-chair of life sciences and health care at Dassault Systèmes along with two other undisclosed participants to the edge of space.

In response to the allegations, Blue Origin have since issued a statement saying Ms. Abrams was dismissed for cause two years ago, “after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations”; a claim she denies.

Violating federal export control regulations is a very serious charge, says Doug Messier, Managing Editor at Parabolic Arc. “The question is what part of Abrams job as head of employee communications would involve these regulations”, he asks.

Furthermore, say Blue Origin, the company “has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind.” The statement says the company provides numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and the prompt investigation of any new claims of misconduct.

The claims about a sexist environment at Blue Origin have been backed up by Joseph Gruber, another former employee at the company. Gruber took to Twitter to say “Blue has a horrible culture and yes, there is sexism in the organisation as I reported to HR on my exit interview.” That said, he added “I would fly on NS today.”

The essay has been followed up with a television appearance by Ms Abrams on CBS Mornings to discuss the allegations, along with a coordinated media push that included an article in Fortune magazine .

Fortune said it viewed the letter before publication and spoke to five of its signatories; all besides Abrams wished to remain anonymous, citing nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements, fears of retaliation by Blue Origin, and concern for their future careers in the tight-knit space industry.

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