Bezos Wants to Create a Better Future in Space. His Company Blue Origin Is Stuck in a Toxic Past.
By: Alexandra Abrams, Former Head of Blue Origin Employee Communications, and 20 other Blue Origin employees and former employees on the New Shepard, New Glenn, Blue Engines, Advanced Development Programs, Test & Flight Operations, and Human Resources teams
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.
Blue Origin’s mission statement features prominently on its website, and it’s a lofty one: “enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth.” All of us joined Blue Origin eager to innovate and to open access to space for the benefit of humanity. We believe exploring the possibilities for human civilization beyond Earth is a necessity. But if this company’s culture and work environment are a template for the future Jeff Bezos envisions, we are headed in a direction that reflects the worst of the world we live in now, and sorely needs to change.
Blue Origin currently has more than 3,600 employees spanning six states and several countries. However, in the company Bezos has created, the workforce dedicated to establishing this future “for all” is mostly male and overwhelmingly white. One-hundred percent of the senior technical and program leaders are men.
Workforce gender gaps are common in the space industry, but at Blue Origin they also manifest in a particular brand of sexism. Numerous senior leaders have been known to be consistently inappropriate with women. One senior executive in CEO Bob Smith’s loyal inner circle was reported multiple times to Human Resources for sexual harassment. Even so, Smith personally made him a member of the hiring committee for filling a senior HR role in 2019.
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 appeared to many of us that he was protected by his close personal relationship with Bezos—it took him physically groping a female subordinate for him to finally be let go.
Additionally, a former NASA astronaut and Blue Origin senior leader once instructed a group of women with whom he was collaborating: “You should ask my opinion because I am a man.” We found many company leaders to be unapproachable and showing clear bias against women. 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.
What are the blind spots of an organization whose stated mission is to enable humanity’s better future, yet is rife with sexism? Blue Origin's flaws extend further, unfortunately. The company proclaims it will build a better world because we’re well on our way to ruining this one, yet none of us has seen Blue Origin establish any concrete plans to become carbon neutral or significantly reduce its large environmental footprint.
Jeff Bezos has made splashy announcements and donations to climate justice groups, but “benefiting Earth” starts in one’s own backyard. In our experience, environmental concerns have never been a priority at Blue Origin. Time and again we saw new capabilities added to the Kent factory, but not until the machinery showed up did the company begin to consider the environmental impact, including whether a permit was needed to manage the waste products.
For years employees have raised environmental concerns at company town halls, but these have been largely left unaddressed. The company headquarters that opened in 2020 is not a LEED-certified building and was built on wetlands that were drained for construction. Eventually the surrounding roads had to be elevated to mitigate the severe flooding that ensued. We did not see sustainability, climate change, or climate justice influencing Blue Origin’s decision-making process or company culture.
That culture has also taken a toll on the mental health of many of the people who make Blue Origin’s operations possible. Memos from senior leadership reveal a desire to push employees to their limits, stating that the company needs to “get more out of our employees” and that the employees should consider it a “privilege to be a part of history.” One directive held out SpaceX as a model, in that “burnout was part of their labor strategy.” Former and current employees have had 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. One senior program leader with decades in the aerospace and defense industry said working at Blue Origin was the worst experience of her life.
Professional dissent at Blue Origin is actively stifled. Smith personally told one of us to not make it easy for employees to ask questions at company town halls—one of the only available forums for live, open discussion. Smith also asked his COO for a list of employees who were troublemakers or agitators. The list was then distributed to senior leaders so they could “have a talk” with the agitators in their groups. Critics inside the company have been forced out for speaking up and offered payment in exchange for signing even more restrictive nondisclosure agreements—including some of the engineers who ensure the very safety of the rockets. Smith’s inner circle of loyalists makes unilateral decisions, often without the buy-in of engineers, other experts, or senior leaders across various departments.
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.
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. When Challenger exploded, the government’s investigation determined that the push to keep to a schedule of 24 flights per year “directly contributed to unsafe launch operations.” Of note: the Challenger report also cited internal stifling of differences of opinion as one of the organizational issues that led to the disaster and loss of life.
In the opinion of an engineer who has signed on to this essay, “Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far.” Many of this essay’s authors say they would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle. And no wonder—we have all seen how often teams are stretched beyond reasonable limits. In 2019, the team assigned to operate and maintain one of New Shepard’s subsystems included only a few engineers working long hours. Their responsibilities, in some of our opinions, went far beyond what would be manageable for a team double the size, ranging from investigating the root cause of failures to conducting regular preventative maintenance on the rocket's systems.
Requests by managers and employees for additional engineers, staff, or spending were frequently denied, despite the fact that Blue Origin has one of the largest single sources of private funding on Earth. Employees are often told to “be careful with Jeff’s money,” to “not ask for more,” and to “be grateful.” In weekly meetings, 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.
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.
Many of us see history repeating itself. Should we allow commercial entities intent on flying an increasing number of people to space to make the same errors and accountability oversights that led to past disasters? NASA, as a civilian agency, is accountable to the public. Blue Origin, a private company, is not.
In 2004, Congress placed a moratorium on establishing new regulations for the commercial space sector and directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop indicators that would signal when the industry was mature enough to accommodate a stricter safety regime. In a 2019 report to Congress, the FAA found that the current—and mostly voluntary—safety measures were sufficient for the state of the industry. In the meantime, the FAA’s safeguards of public safety are presently limited to measures such as ensuring a rocket’s trajectory doesn’t risk a crash with a commercial airplane or shed hazardous debris on people below.
It should not take loss of life to turn our eye toward what goes on behind closed doors at space companies. Lack of rules and regulation has helped the commercial space industry thrive, but the time has come—now that the public is boarding flights—to allow accountable oversight.
Today, Blue Origin is selling seats on rockets, stating “safety is their top mission” despite the fact that very few regulations are in place to ensure that is truly the case. Internally, many of us did not see leadership invest in prioritizing sound systems engineering practices. Systems engineering products were created for New Shepard after it was built and flying, rather than in the design phase; this impacted verification efforts.
Of course, no company is perfect. But what matters in a company as much as in a society is that when wrongs are exposed, leadership makes efforts to right them and learn from them. Unchecked power does not create an environment in which any leader will operate as their best self. Billionaires may like to present themselves as altruistic, using their resources for the benefit of humanity; in our opinion, however, much of that image is an illusion created by public relations teams, underpinned by ego.
We have made many mistakes on planet Earth. Should not the leaders of a company touting itself as the solution for humanity’s future also make certain their company is operating ethically, responsibly, and under oversight that creates accountability and ensures safety? Not so at Blue Origin.
Following a 2018 Supreme Court decision cementing the legality of arbitration agreements, Bezos quietly mobilized an initiative to have all employees sign away their right to resolve employment disputes in court or to speak out about harassment or discriminatory conduct. In 2019, Blue Origin leadership requested that all employees sign new contracts with a non-disparagement clause binding them and their heirs from ever saying something that would “hurt the goodwill of the company.” Contracts for some departing employees now mandated they pay the corporation’s legal fees if the corporation chose to sue them for breach of contract. The inner circle of leadership tracked who signed, and discussed contingency plans for those who did not.
Unlike many of the critics of billionaires going to space, most of us would be classified as space fans rather than space detractors. If wealthy people want to spend their fortunes on space ventures, that’s great. It’s fine to say this work is in service of exploration, discovery, and our collective future. It’s right to acknowledge private space travel as a feat of engineering, and envision what life in space might be like.
The artistic renderings of Bezos’s orbiting colonies have a utopian flair. But what will these colonies actually be like, given the disturbing systemic problems within his own company here on Earth? 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.
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.
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?
Published September 30, 2021.
Note: 3:00pm, September 30, 2021, updated to add Blue Origin statement: Ms. Abrams was dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations. 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.
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