Blue Origin Under Fire

Blue Origin Under Fire

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin finds itself under fire this week both from within and without. An essay penned by 21 current and former employees accuses the firm of being “stuck in a toxic past” while NASA documents blast the company’s bid for the Artemis Human Landing System.

Blue Origin launches the New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket that took Bezos and three others across the air/space line in July.

First crew to launch on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, July 20, 2021, L-R: Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Wally Funk, Mark Bezos. Credit: Blue Origin

A roughly 10-minute flight of which several are in weightlessness, New Shepard is also used to launch science and technology experiments with no one inside the capsule.

Its next launch carrying people is coming up on October 12 and the company is teasing who will be onboard. Rumors are Star Trek’s original Captain Kirk, William Shatner, is among them.

Blue Origin also is developing the New Glenn orbital rocket and the innovative BE-4 liquid methane/liquid oxygen engine that will power not only New Glenn, but the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Vulcan launch vehicle. The first Vulcan launch is expected next year even though the BE-4 engines are late.

It also wants to build a Human Landing System (HLS) for NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface.

Building rockets, engines and lunar landing systems are just part of Bezos’s very long-term vision of preserving Earth by moving heavy industry off the planet into cislunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and rezoning Earth itself for residential and light industry purposes.

That lofty goal ran into a buzzsaw today with the publication of an essay by 21 current and former company employees accusing top company officials of sexual harrassment and a lax safety culture. Alexandra Abrams, former head of Blue Origin employee communications, is the only one who put her name on the essay, but said it represented 20 others from various parts of the Blue Origin organization.

Many of the complaints are directed at the company’s personnel policies particularly regarding sexual harassment, but some criticize the safety culture:  “Many of this essay’s authors say they would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle.”

As the essay points out, by law the FAA is limited to regulating the safety of the public, not passengers, on commercial human spaceflights.  It suggests Blue Origin is not prioritizing passenger safety.

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.


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?

In a statement today, the FAA said “The FAA takes every safety allegation seriously, and the agency is reviewing the information.”

Blue Origin countered Abram’s allegations by saying she was “dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations” and it “has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind. … We stand by our safety record and believe that New Shepard is the safest space vehicle ever designed or built.”

Today’s accusations come just one day after The Verge published a report based on NASA documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request wherein NASA criticized Blue Origin’s bid for an HLS contract.

Blue Origin lost to rival SpaceX.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied its protest of the award and the company now is suing NASA in federal court.

According to the FOIA’d documents, NASA told the GAO that Blue Origin “gambled” with its bid of $5.9 billion, about twice the SpaceX price, expecting NASA to come back and ask it for a better offer as it had with an earlier round: “But NASA had no obligation to make this request. This time, the bet simply did not work out in Blue Origin’s favor.”

The court is expected to make a decision on Blue Origin’s lawsuit by November 1.  Until then, NASA’s contract with SpaceX is in limbo.

Blue Origin critics say the GAO protest and now the lawsuit are imperiling the timeline for landing people back on the Moon by 2024. Asked last week if that deadline is still possible, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said it’s up to the judge. “Do you want to call the federal judge and ask him? … We’re going to move with all dispatch as soon as we know.”

Many have been skeptical of the 2024 deadline since it was announced by then-Vice President Mike Pence in 2019 in any case, however, for technical and budgetary reasons.

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