Blue Origin: Employees don’t feel safe inside the missiles

Jeff Bezos (left) was present at the Blue Origin (right) launch of the New Shepard rocket in July.
Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters; Blue Origin

  • Twenty-one employees of the space company Blue Origin published a joint letter on Thursday in which they gave their opinion on the working conditions and the company.
  • Some employees admitted they would not fly a Blue Origin missile due to safety concerns. One of them said he was “lucky” that nothing happened.
  • In the United States there is no official federal agency that prescribes and regulates the safety of passengers on private space flights.

A group of current and former employees of the US aerospace company Blue Origin have jointly published an open letter in which they provide their views on their current or previous employer. In the letter, they state that they would not fly aboard the company’s missile due to safety concerns.

The letter can be viewed as a possible response to a passenger rocket launch in July. A few months ago, the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, launched his New Shepard rocket into space for the first time for a few days. Since the successful first flight, Blue Origin has opened ticket sales for normal passenger flights. The next rocket is due to launch with four customers on October 12th.

However, the letter stated that management had ignored the security concerns raised by employees. The focus would only have been on the “Progress for Jeff” and the New Shepard’s start plan as early as possible. The concerns of the staff working on the missiles were ignored.

The only named author of the published letter is Alexandra Abrams. In her time she was head of employee communications at Blue Origin. It was Abrams who posted the whistleblowing letter on the Lioness website on Thursday. However, she emphasizes that in addition to her, 20 other current and former employees of Blue Origin co-wrote the letter. The news channel CBS News spoke to five co-authors. In addition to the ignored safety concerns, other working conditions were also criticized in the letter. It is said that dealings in the company were often sexist. Harassment and intolerance towards dissenting opinions are said to have been the order of the day.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos with aviator goggles that belonged to aviation pioneer and suffragette Amelia Earhart.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos with aviator goggles that belonged to aviation pioneer and suffragette Amelia Earhart.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

So far, the New Shepard rocket has successfully flown 15 times into space – always without passengers. Until the said flight in July. Jeff Bezos himself was part of the missile’s first crew. According to its own information, the rocket has an emergency system that can eject the passenger capsule from a defective rocket if necessary. The letter states: “In the opinion of a specialist engineer who also signed this letter, Blue Origin has been more than lucky that nothing has happened so far. Many of the authors of the letter admitted that they would not want to fly a Blue Origin rocket. ”Two former Blue Origin employees also told CBS News that they would not be comfortable in a company’s spacecraft.

According to a statement emailed to Business Insider, Abrams was “lawfully dismissed two years ago after being repeatedly warned about issues with control regulations.” The former head of employee communications denies that she received such reminders.

More than 17 engineers and a few executives left the Amazon founder’s space company this summer. Many of them in the week immediately after Bezos’ first space flight. The news channel CNBC reported in August. The reasons for their departures are unclear. However, reviews on the company’s and employee rating website, Glassdoor, indicated that only 19 percent of Blue Origin employees are happy with the current CEO, Bob Smith. In comparison, sympathy and approval for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is around 92 percent, and for Tory Bruno from United Launch Alliance it is 77 percent.

The Blue Origin statement goes on to say, “We stand by our safety record and believe that the New Shepard is the safest spacecraft ever designed or built.”

While the company has not identified any safety concerns, the letters from previous and current employees express different opinions. Many of the former employees say that the reason they left was mostly unsustainable safety concerns. For many of the authors of the letter, security was “the driving force” behind the publication of the letter. The letter also said that a manager on a team discovered in 2018 that employees had documented “more than 1,000 problem reports” related to the company’s rocket engines. However, none of these reports had been processed, the letter said.

In addition, the authors write that the space company has often turned down requests for “additional engineers, employees or expenses”. Instead, the already small teams would have been given additional tasks. Employees would only be told to “be careful with Jeff’s money,” “stop asking,” and “be grateful,” according to the letter.

Passengers on commercial rocket flights fly at their own risk

On January 14, 2021, the New Shepard crew pod landed with a parachute at Blue Origin launch site in Texas.

On January 14, 2021, the New Shepard crew pod landed with a parachute at Blue Origin launch site in Texas.
Blue Origin

Flights into space are always risky. According to an analysis published earlier this year, about one percent of manned space flights in the United States resulted in a fatal accident. That seems low, but in relation to this, the number is “pretty high. It’s about 10,000 times more dangerous than flying in an airliner, ”said George Nield, one of the report’s co-authors. Niels was previously the deputy director of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He headed the commercial space transportation department.

“There are some people who think that the only way to make commercial space travel safer and more reliable is to get more experience by doing more flights,” he said. To date, however, there is no federal agency in the United States that regulates the safety of passengers on private commercial space flights. So far, the Federal Aviation Administration has only had to ensure that the rocket launches are safe for people on the ground and do not pose a threat to other aircraft. Once in the air, the FAA is no longer responsible.

In an email from the aviation authority to Business Insider, the FAA confirmed shortly after the letter was published that it was investigating the letter and the allegations it contained. “The FAA takes every security allegation seriously. The authority will check all the information, “it says in the email.

This article was translated from English and edited by Julia Knopf. You can read the original here.