Blue Origin’s record on safety and sexual harassment comes under fire from within

Bloe Origin marquee
An essay criticizing Blue Origin’s attitude toward flight safety and sexual harassment also raises concern about the environmental impact of its headquarters building in Kent, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

A former employee of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has given up her anonymity to lead a campaign accusing the company of laxity when it comes to safety and sexual harassment.

The allegations from Alexandra Abrams, who served as Blue Origin’s head of employee communications until her dismissal in 2019, are detailed in an essay published on Lioness.co and in an interview with CBS News. Abrams said the Lioness essay was written in collaboration with 20 former and current Blue Origin employees who aren’t identified.

Abrams and her co-writers say that the types of gender gaps often seen in the aerospace industry “manifest in a particular brand of sexism,” that dissent is suppressed, and that Bezos’ competition with fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Richard Branson “seemed to take precedence over safety concerns” in planning for crewed spaceflights.

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith was portrayed as leading the push toward flying people on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spacecraft. Bezos and three crewmates rode on the first crewed New Shepard flight in July, and the second crewed flight is due for launch from Blue Origin’s West Texas spaceport in two weeks.

In response to GeekWire’s emailed inquiry, Blue Origin said it takes allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment seriously.

“Ms. Abrams was dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations,” a company spokesperson said. “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.”

Abrams told CBS that her supervisor gave her a different reason at the time: “He said, ‘Bob and I can’t trust you.'”

Alexandra Abrams, a former head of employee communications for Blue Origin, is speaking out against the company to @LaurieSegall.

“You cannot create a culture of safety and a culture of fear at the same time. They are incompatible.” pic.twitter.com/JHuFY3cjcs

— CBS Mornings (@CBSMornings) September 30, 2021

She said her turning point came when she was asked to put policies in place that, in her view, would have limited employees’ ability to speak out about internal problems. Abrams told CBS that she met with current and former Blue Origin employees at her home to work out the text of their essay on disposable laptops, and that the text has been sent to the Federal Aviation Administration.

We’ve reached out to the FAA and will update this report with anything we hear back. For what it’s worth, the FAA approved July’s launch after reviewing Blue Origin’s measures to ensure the safety of the uninvolved public, in accordance with the regulations currently governing private human spaceflight.

Abrams, who went on to another job in the tech industry after leaving Blue Origin, said she was going public despite the fact that she signed non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements with the company. “I’ve gotten far enough away from it that I’m not afraid enough to let them silence me anymore,” she told CBS.

The byline for the 2,200-word essay says the current and former employees include representatives of the teams for New Shepard as well as for Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket, the engine development group, advanced development programs, test and flight operations, and human resources. Among the allegations:

  • The essay said “numerous senior executives have been known to be consistently inappropriate with women.” One unnamed senior executive was said to have been reported multiple times to human resources for sexual harassment, but Smith nevertheless “made him a member of the hiring committee for filling a senior HR role in 2019.” A former NASA astronaut and Blue Origin senior leader was quoted as telling a group of women collaborators, “You should ask my opinion because I am a man.”
  • Dissent within the company was said to be stifled. The essay said Smith told one employee not to make it easy to ask questions at company town halls, and asked his chief operating officer for a list of employees who were “troublemakers or agitators.”
  • The essay said most of its authors “would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle” due to safety concerns. “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 essay said. “In 2020, company leaders demonstrated increasing impatience with New Shepard’s schedule of a few flights per year; their goal, routinely communicated to operations and maintenance staff, was to scale to more than 40. Some of us felt that with the resources and staff available, leadership’s race to launch at such a breakneck speed was seriously compromising flight safety.”
  • The authors also complained that the headquarters building that Blue Origin opened last year in Kent, Wash., “is not a LEED-certified building and was built on wetlands that were drained for construction.” They said the surrounding roads had to be elevated to mitigate flooding. “We did not see sustainability, climate change, or climate justice influencing Blue Origin’s decision-making process or company culture,” the essay said.

Today’s allegations come at a challenging time for Blue Origin: It’s suing the federal government after being passed over in a competition for lunar lander contracts from NASA — a competition that Elon Musk’s SpaceX won. It’s dealing with schedule delays in the production of its BE-4 rocket engine and New Glenn rocket. And it’s going through a series of high-profile departures of key employees.

Tags
Space Blue origin Jeff bezos New shepard