This week's Rocket Report from Ars Technica includes a shocking story about Blue Origin. In the wake of BO's lawsuits against SpaceX and NASA for having the gall to award a contract to someone besides Blue, Alexandra Abrams, Former Head of Blue Origin Employee Communications, and 20 other current and former employees signed on to a document about the company's culture, citing safety concerns, sexist attitudes, and a "lack of commitment to the planet's future."
The statement is published on a website called Lioness.co and shows as a nine minute read. It's called "Bezos wants to create a better future in space. His company Blue Origin is stuck in a Toxic Past."
"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," the essay authors write. "That’s not the world we should be creating here on Earth, and certainly not as our springboard to a better one."
The only employee willing to publicly link their name to it is Alexandra Abrams. Ms. Abrams led employee communications for the company until she was terminated in 2019. The other employees are bit harder to summarize and I see no indication of a breakdown of the numbers between current and former employees.
The article has all the subtlety of a punch in the face. In one place, they say:
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.
Many of the essay's authors said they would not feel safe flying on a Blue Origin vehicle. And the anecdotes of sexism and an unhealthy work culture are vivid.
While I'm sympathetic to the complaints, parts of this don't sit well with me. The two areas they talk about the most are sexism and environmentalism. They focus a lot on Blue not doing enough to "save the planet" now and have the air of "with all of Bezos' money, why doesn't he spend that money to be greener?" For example,
...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.
I'm going to ignore the "carbon neutral" matador's cape (don't get me started...), but that last paragraph may have merit, and I agree completely that "benefiting Earth begins in one's own backyard."
The 35,000 foot view is that there are always going to be people who aren't happy where they work, and we are talking about 21 people signing onto this out of 3600 employees. From the outside, and without extensive interviews, how can we know how widespread this dissatisfaction is? This is where Eric Berger, writing at Ars, has the advantage of having insider sources who work there that he can talk with; as sort of a sanity check.
Although it is clear the essay was a product of disgruntled workers, these sources agreed that there were elements of truth in the essay. For these sources, the withering criticism of Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, and his hand-picked chief executive, Bob Smith, rang especially true.
Mrs. Graybeard spent her entire career being the "First Woman Whatever" wherever she worked; from working on power supplies at an electronics manufacturer to working on the Space Shuttles. Suffice it to say I've heard stories similar to the ones they cite in the Lioness article many times. Yes, it's a shame the work environment isn't perfect, but expecting perfection will always lead to disappointment.
After publication, Blue Origin sent a statement to Lioness that appears at the end of the piece.
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.
Eric Berger asked for her response to the response.
Abrams told Ars that she never received any warnings, verbal or written, from management regarding issues involving federal export control regulations. She has long weighed going public with this letter, she said, knowing it would open her up to expansive litigation. "They can come after me for as much money as they deem appropriate," she said.
The most likely result of this is that it's going to tarnish Blue Origin's reputation just a bit more. The company has developed a reputation for being a bit too lawsuit happy in the wake of suing NASA. CEO Bob Smith is already not well-regarded, but is still in his office. He's probably not going to get in trouble due to this piece. Ultimately, if anyone is to care enough to try to fix this, the corporate culture change has to come down from the top. It's Bezos' baby to fix.