for vanityfair.com, | October 1, 2021

Blue Origin Employees Say They Wouldn’t Step Foot on Jeff Bezos’s Rocket Ship Because They Want to Live

Nearly two dozen current and former employees also allege the company is run by sexist creeps.

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Nearly two dozen current and former employees also allege the company is run by sexist creeps.

Going to space might have been one of Jeff Bezos’s childhood dreams, but according to current and former employees of the company that got him there, Blue Origin is a sexist, toxic organization that cares more about beating fellow billionaires than actual flight safety.

In a blistering essay written by almost two dozen people who have worked at Blue Origin, the business is described as a terrifying environment for both women and the people relying on the second-richest man in the world to get them to and from space in one piece. In addition to noting that Blue Origin’s 3,600-plus-person workforce is “mostly male and overwhelmingly white” and that “100% of the senior technical and program leaders are men,” the authors write that many senior leaders have a “clear bias against women.”

In one instance, a former NASA astronaut and senior Blue Origin employee allegedly told a group of women with whom he was collaborating, “You should ask my opinion because I am a man.” While men were apparently listened to when it came to concerns about the New Shepard, women were “demeaned for raising them.” As the authors write:

When one man was let go for poor performance, he was allowed to leave with dignity, even a going-away party. Yet when a woman leader who had significantly improved her department’s performance was let go, she was ordered to leave immediately, with security hovering until she exited the building five minutes later.

They also highlight a former executive who “frequently treated women in a condescending and demeaning manner,” addressing them as “baby girl,” “baby doll,” or “sweetheart” and asking about their dating lives. They say this man’s behavior was so well known within the company that some female employees “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.”

Elsewhere, there’s this revolting anecdote, per The Washington Post:

One person who was not a signatory to the blog post said in an interview that she once was in a meeting with [then vice president of recruiting Walt] McCleery and executives from an outside company when McCleery turned to the executives and said: “I apologize for [her] being emotional. It must be her time of the month.”

The comment “was tough for me,” she said. “It was embarrassing and awkward.” She said she had to quit her job there “because I couldn’t take it anymore.”

According to the Post, Blue Origin hired the law firm Perkins Coie to investigate McCleery and determined that his behavior was inappropriate, which company officials confirmed, saying he had been terminated. (In an interview, McCleery denied the allegations and said, “Not true as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have any other comments.” Asked about his departure from Blue Origin, he answered, “It doesn’t matter how it came to an end. That’s private. That’s my information.”)

In addition to charges of sexism, the writers of the essay also make some fairly terrifying accusations about flight safety, claiming that leadership is lax in that department:

This suppression of dissent brings us to the matter of safety, which for many of us is the driving force for coming forward with this essay. At Blue Origin, a common question during high-level meetings was, “When will Elon [Musk] or [Richard] Branson fly?” Competing with other billionaires—and “making progress for Jeff”—seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule.

In 2020, company leaders demonstrated increasing impatience with New Shepard’s schedule of a few flights per year; their goal, routinely communicated to operations and maintenance staff, was to scale to more than 40. 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. 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.

We have seen a pattern of decision-making that often prioritizes execution speed and cost reduction over the appropriate resourcing to ensure quality. 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. 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.

As one engineer who signed the essay opined, “Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far.” Chillingly, many of the essay’s authors say they would not fly on a Blue Origin aircraft. “And no wonder,” they write. “We have all seen how often teams are stretched beyond reasonable limits. In 2019, the team assigned to operate and maintain one of New Shepard’s subsystems included only a few engineers working long hours. Their responsibilities, in some of our opinions, 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.”

Speaking to CBS Mornings, Alexandra Abrams, the former head of employee communications at Blue Origin and an essay author who publicly shared her name, said, “You cannot create a culture of safety and a culture of fear at the same time. They are incompatible.”

In a statement, Blue Origin responded to the allegations by writing, “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.”

The New Shepard’s next launch is scheduled for October 12.

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