Leadership at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket company appears to be struggling with how to navigate major mission milestones in the age of the coronavirus.
Loren Grush published new reporting for The Verge that illustrates conflict between employees and management, citing four anonymous employee sources including audio recorded from a recent meeting.
Blue Origin, which is headquartered in the state of Washington, is exempt from a statewide mandate requiring businesses to suspend activity as part of the effort to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Washington is among the first states to see widespread cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., but work on the massive New Glenn rocket potentially for the Department of Defense makes Blue Origin an essential business.
The problem is that Blue Origin is pushing employees to work on a rocket that isn’t connected to DOD.
The company has already delayed one flight test in Texas for New Shepard, the smaller rocket aimed at taking tourists on 11-minute journeys to space, due to a Texas requirement that visitors from other states including Washington quarantine for two weeks.
As Loren reports, Blue Origin staff are understandably uncomfortable with work how traveling from Washington to Texas could be safe in the current climate.
Several people have expressed apprehension about going, according to employees interviewed by The Verge. They believe that it would be difficult to maintain proper social distancing and safety procedures if employees ultimately did have to go down to Van Horn. All employees have to stay in hotels while in the town, and they are typically crowded together in conference rooms or mission control to conduct the launch.
Blue Origin, which is competing with Virgin Galactic to send tourists to space, tends to operate with almost no transparency. Fears of how rocket testing could impact the fight against COVID-19, however, has outweighed the risk of retaliation from talking to the press for some.
“What is essential about a vehicle that flies potentially billionaires to space?” one employee asks.
Many have questioned the importance of their work during the effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
All of the employees who spoke with The Verge felt that New Shepard is not a critical vehicle that needs to launch during this time. “In my view, it’s really a stretch,” one employee tells The Verge. “I don’t think that New Shepherd is mission essential to the United States in any way.”
It’s not just staff comments raising eyebrows either. Many of the quotes from management secretly captured during a meeting are concerning.
Blue Origin is hardly the only rocket company to find ways to continue working through the coronavirus crisis, despite the greater economy being shut down. Despite pressure to pause work, SpaceX also continues to operate with few exceptions. This may not be the last story like this we see for now.