FAA Concerned about Lack of Whistleblower Protections in Blue Origin Safety Investigation

Stock photo of a rocket launching at sunrise in the desert.

On September 30, 21 current and former employees of Blue Origin, the aerospace manufacturing company founded by Jeff Bezos, published an open letter about the company’s toxic culture and work environment. In response to the letter, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it would “review safety concerns” that individuals pointed to in the letter, specifically regarding the craft New Shephard.

On December 10, the FAA announced that it “found no safety issues” after investigating the whistleblowers’ allegations about the “human spaceflight program.” However, emails sent by FAA investigators and obtained by CNN Business show that the investigation was stymied by the lack of whistleblower protections for “employees of commercial space companies.”

Company Culture

In the letter from 21 current and former Blue Origin employees, which was spearheaded by Alexandra Abrams, formerly the Head of Blue Origin Employee Communications, the whistleblowers allege that the culture at the company was toxic and left little room for internal questioning and dissent. The signers of the letter represent current 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,” the letter began. The whistleblowers write that they joined the company “eager to innovate and to open access to space for the benefit of humanity.” However, they state that “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.”

The letter notes that the workforce at Blue Origin is “mostly male and overwhelmingly white. One-hundred percent of the senior technical and program leaders are men.” The whistleblowers state that a “particular brand of sexism” exists at the company, writing that “[n]umerous 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.” According to the letter, Smith personally appointed the aforementioned executive to “the hiring committee for filling a senior HR role in 2019.”

Additionally, the letter states 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 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.”

The whistleblowers say that many of the higher-ups at Blue Origin were “unapproachable” and “show[ed] clear bias against women.” The letter details: “Concerns related to flying New Shepard were consistently shut down, and women were demeaned for raising them.”

Safety Concerns and New Shepard

Blue Origin is marketing New Shepard as a spacecraft that civilians can board, with its first human flight a success on July 20. “Our reusable launch vehicle is taking payloads – and soon, you – to space,” the webpage for New Shepard states. Already, TV personality and former football player Michael Strahan joined the ranks of individuals who have taken a ride aboard the New Shepard, completing a flight on December 11. Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of Alan Shepard, who was the first American to go to space on May 5, 1961, was also on the flight; the craft is named after her father.

In their letter, the whistleblowers allege that the culture at Blue Origin was pushing employees to the brink in terms of mental health. “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.’” The letter continues, “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.”

Along those lines, the letter states: “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.”

According to the letter, individuals working for Blue Origin who “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.” The whistleblowers tie this into concerns about safety, “which for many of us is the driving force for coming forward with this essay.” They write that “[c]ompeting with other billionaires—and ‘making progress for Jeff’—seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule.”

Specifically, the whistleblowers mention concerns about company leadership wanting to greatly increase the number of trips New Shepard should make in 2020. “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.” They note that “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.”

One engineer who signed the letter said that “Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far.” In a particularly chilling statement, the letter states: “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.” The letter describes how in 2019, “the team assigned to operate and maintain one of New Shepard’s subsystems included only a few engineers working long hours.” In some of the whistleblowers’ opinions, the team’s responsibilities “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.”

The signers of the letter state that the company frequently denied requests for “additional engineers, staff, or spending…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.” In sum, the whistleblowers claim that they “have seen a pattern of decision-making that often prioritizes execution speed and cost reduction over the appropriate resourcing to ensure quality.”

An important question that is key to the FAA’s concerns about the lack of whistleblower protections for individuals who work for private companies like Blue Origin emerges. “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,” the letter reads.

The letter discusses where federal legislation falls behind on the current state of the industry. “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,” the letter states.

The whistleblowers also write that after “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.” Additionally, the letter states that “[i]n 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.”

The whistleblowers request that Bezos and other leaders 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.” They conclude their letter suggesting 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 response to the allegations, Blue Origin’s CEO Bob Smith wrote an email to everyone in the company. Smith addressed the allegations surrounding safety and New Shepard, writing: “First, the New Shepard team went through a methodical and pain-staking process to certify our vehicle for First Human Flight. Anyone that claims otherwise is uninformed and simply incorrect. That team is appropriately proud of the work they’ve done and we should be as well.”

Smith also wrote to employees that the company has “no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind. We provide numerous avenues including a 24/7 anonymous hotline for employees, we investigate and act on any findings, and we will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct. As always, I welcome and encourage any member of Team Blue to speak directly with me if they have any concerns on any topic at any time.” Of Abrams, a Blue Origin statement read: “Ms. Abrams was dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations,” according to an addendum on the original letter from the whistleblowers. “We stand by our safety record and believe that New Shepard is the safest space vehicle ever designed or built,” Blue Origin stated.

Challenges in the FAA Investigation

Although the FAA confirmed that after investigating allegations about Blue Origin’s “human spaceflight program” and “found no specific safety issues,” the CNN Business article reveals that FAA investigators expressed concerns about the way in which they were able to contact current and former employees about the state of affairs inside the company. According to emails that CNN Business obtained, FAA investigators “were not able to speak with any of the engineers who signed the letter anonymously.” Additionally, the investigators were unable “to go to Blue Origin and ask for documents or interviews with current employees or management.”

CNN Business underlines how this case exemplifies “how commercial spaceflight companies like Blue Origin are operating in a regulatory bubble, insulated from much of the scrutiny other industries are put under. There are no federal whistleblower statues that would protect employees in the commercial space industry if they aid FAA investigators, according to the agency.”

According to the article, “[t]he commercial space industry is in a legally designated ‘learning period’ until at least October 2023.” This period of time has been extended multiple times, “most recently by a 2015 law called the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. The idea is to allow the industry to mature and give companies a chance to self-regulate without overbearing government interference. But that designation effectively bars federal regulators from implementing certain new rules or wielding the same oversight powers for commercial space companies as it does for aviation,” the article states.

An email from FAA investigators to Abrams, one of the only individuals with her name attached to the letter, states that “no technical experts have reached out to us or provided any specific documentation regarding the safety allegations. We understand that there are no federal ‘whistleblower protection’ statutes protecting employees of commercial space companies from retaliation resulting from reporting safety issues.”

The investigators point out: “This is in stark contrast to the extensive protections available to commercial aviation industry whistleblowers. We believe this was an enormous factor in our inability to pursue this investigation further.” the email continued. “[T]he FAA could not investigate this matter in depth, and thus, could not substantiate the safety concerns described in the document you provided. No further actions can be recommended at this time,” the email states.

CNN Business also obtained Abrams’ emails to investigators. Abrams worked for Blue Origin for two and a half years before being fired in 2019. She “told CNN Business that current and former employees that she keeps in touch with have expressed grave concerns about the future of their careers if they agreed to cooperate with investigators.” Abrams also shared “a text exchange with a Blue Origin engineer who had planned to provide an anonymous written statement to the FAA but later changed their mind, fearing that the statement could be traced back to its source. The engineer adds that they ‘hope other people…speak up and say something,’ according to a redacted screenshot of the text exchange.”

According to Abrams, “[t]hat pattern continued for weeks in discussions with more than a dozen current and former employees.”

In another email to Abrams, an FAA investigator wrote: “[U]nfortunately, without speaking to anyone or having the ability to review documentation, our hands are tied.” Blue Origin “did not immediately respond to a request for comment.”

Abrams spoke with Quartz for an October 3 interview and further expressed her doubts about Blue Origin’s statements that the company was prioritizing safety in the first human flight. “From what I know, that was not the case,” she told Quartz. In the interview, Abrams commented on the company’s statement about her firing and the “repeated warnings” they claimed she got. “She believes the company is referring to an effort to develop an internal app that inadvertently left some company information on foreign servers, a problem she helped report and resolve,” the interview states.

However, “Abrams denied that she received any such warnings, written or verbal. Instead, she says she was fired after a disagreement about changing employee contracts to force disputes, including over sexual harassment, into binding arbitration. Such a policy prevents employees from seeking accountability in courts and instead moves the venue to a private process where workers are at a heavy disadvantage to their employers.”

“I felt complicit as the head of employee communications,” Abrams said in the interview. But she told Quartz that now, “I feel that I am fulfilling my job description for the first time through this effort…to give agencies and the public the information they need to change their approach, to provide oversight in way that actually ensures safety.”

Read the letter signed by current and former Blue Origin employees here.

Read the CNN Business article here.

Read more about corporate whistleblowers on WNN.

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