Alexandra Abrams, Former Head of Blue Origin Employee Communications, and 20 other former and current employees at Jeff Bezos’ space company penned a letter calling out the company for ignoring claims of sexual harassment, blatant sexism, and compromising flight safety.
The letter was written by Blue Origin employees across many programs, from communications and Human Resources to New Shepard, New Glenn and Test and Flight Operations Teams. They describe the “overwhelming sense of unease” they felt when Bezos flew into space this July.
Those who wrote this letter are not critics of human space exploration, they all joined Blue Origin with the goal of innovating and expanding space access.
Pervasive sexism throughout Blue Origin
All of us joined Blue Origin eager to innovate and to open access to space for the benefit of humanity. We believe exploring the possibilities for human civilization beyond Earth is a necessity. But 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.
They describe the 3,600 person workforce as “mostly male and overwhelmingly white,” noting that every senior technical and program leader is male.
These workforce gender gaps are disappointingly common in the space industry, but they describe the disparity at Blue Origin as “manifesting in a particular brand of sexism.”
Numerous 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. Even so, Smith personally made him a member of the hiring committee for filling a senior HR role in 2019.
This senior executive was far from the only one called out. Many company leader were biased against women, while another executive and close friend of Bezos was known for his inappropriate behavior, enough so that new female hires were warned to stay away from him. “…it took him physically groping a female subordinate for him to finally be let go.”
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.
Shutting down employee feedback
Town halls are supposed to be a way for management to connect with employees, but apparently, that isn’t how it felt for employees at Blue Origin. In addition to failing to address raised environmental concerns, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith actively shut down professional dissent.
Smith personally told one of us to not make it easy for employees to ask questions at company town halls
This shutting down of employee feedback apparently went far beyond environmental concerns, and so far as to compromise safety, the main reason the employees put together the letter.
Safety should be a higher priority at Blue Origin
The letter discusses how a safety came second the ‘billionaire space race,’ with a common question at high-level meeting being when Elon or Branson would fly. Company leaders were apparently frustrated with how few flights New Shepard was making per year, routinely pushing to scale operations without the backing staff and resources to make that scaling possible. They compare the attitude at Blue Origin to that push to launch 24 times a year that contributed to unsafe launch operations with Challenger.
“Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far.” 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.
According to the letter, additional staff, engineer, and spending requests were routinely denied with employees being told to, “be careful with Jeff’s money.” These issues led to many thing slipping through the cracks.
In 2018, when one team lead took over, the team had documented more than 1,000 problem reports related to the engines that power Blue Origin’s rockets, which had never been addressed.
The letter calls for additional rules and regulations, so the commercial space industry does not have to wait until loss of life to fix these problems, especially as the public is now joining in on the flights.
At a minimum, Jeff Bezos and the rest of the leadership 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.
Space Explored’s Take
A Blue Origin spokesperson provided the following statement to Space Explored.
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.
They did not address or respond to any of the claims related to safety issues or environmental concerns.
Update: An internal letter from CEO Bob Smith, obtained by CNBC, further discusses the claims.
Today, you may have seen that some claims were made against our team.
As with any criticism, whether personal or professional, and whether the criticism is fair or baseless, it is never easy to hear. It requires reflection and humility to sort through what is useful and what is not.
It is particularly difficult and painful, for me, to hear claims being levied that attempt to characterize our entire team in a way that doesn’t align with the character and capability that I see at Blue Origin every day.
Yet, one of our Blue Leadership Principles states that “Leaders are sincerely open-minded, and examine their own strongest convictions with humility. They value diversity, in all of its forms, since different viewpoints result in novel ideas. Their openness enables them to trust those around them – and to earn the trust of others in turn.”
We wrote and published that principle, and others, and will today, and always, be self-critical and hold ourselves to the highest standard.
While we reflect on what we can learn and improve, I do want to reassure the team on a few points.
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.
It should also be emphatically stated that we have 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.
Finally, it should never be doubted that we have an amazing team that is doing amazing work. Our team is comprised of the best and brightest professionals in the aerospace industry. People who are dedicated, work hard and are passionate about our mission.
We’ll continue to rapidly grow that talented team, stay focused on our efforts, and support each other. And, step by step, we will make even greater strides.