Jeff Bezos' rocket company accused of toxic culture and safety issues

Former and current employees at Blue Origin, the rocket company started by Jeff Bezos, say the company is rife with sexism and lax on safety. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Former and current employees at Blue Origin, the rocket company started by billionaire Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and one of the richest people in the world, say the company is rife with sexism, intolerant of employees who dare to contradict their bosses and lax on safety.

The claims, including charges of sexual harassment by company executives, were put forward in an essay written by 21 employees and former employees and published on Thursday (Sept 30) on the website Lioness. Only one former employee identified herself. The essay also suggested that there were safety concerns about New Shepard, the vehicle that flew Mr Bezos and three other passengers to the edge of space in July.

"In the opinion of an engineer who has signed on to this essay, 'Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far,' " the essay writers said. "Many of this essay's authors say they would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle."

The next New Shepard flight is scheduled for Oct 12, and one of its four paying passengers said his plans had not changed.

"I am confident in Blue Origin's safety programme, spacecraft, and track record, and certainly wouldn't be flying with them if I wasn't," Mr Glen de Vries, vice-chair of life sciences and healthcare at the French software company Dassault Systemes, said in a message via Twitter. "I've been to the launch site, met people at every level of the company, and everything I've seen was indicative of a great team and culture."

The other announced passenger, Dr Chris Boshuizen, a co-founder of Planet Labs, a satellite operator, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms Alexandra Abrams, the essay writer who spoke publicly, is a former head of employee communications at Blue Origin. She was fired from the company in 2019. She also appeared on CBS Mornings on Thursday.

"You cannot create a culture of safety and a culture of fear at the same time," Ms Abrams told CBS. "They are incompatible."

A statement from a Blue Origin spokesman said Ms Abrams had been fired for cause in 2019 after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations. Ms Abrams said she had never received any warnings, verbal or written.

The company also disputed the culture and safety allegations.

"Blue Origin has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind," the spokesman said. "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."

Mr Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000. The company is part of a wave of businesses, along with Tesla chief executive Elon Musk's SpaceX and British entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, that aim to lower the cost of launching rockets and opening space to private enterprise as well as space tourists.

It had its greatest achievement to date in July: A successful first flight of the New Shepard vehicle with people aboard. That spacecraft is too small to enter orbit around Earth; instead, it reaches more than 96km off the ground, offering a few minutes of weightlessness, and then falls back to Earth, slowed by parachutes. In addition to the July flight, it has conducted 16 successful launches without people aboard.

But outside of Mr Bezos' launch, Blue Origin has been mired in unflattering news for much of the rest of this year. In the spring, the company failed to win a contract from the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to build a lander to take astronauts back to the surface of the moon. Blue Origin appealed the decision to the federal Government Accountability Office and lost. It is now suing Nasa in the US Court of Federal Claims.

The website The Verge reported on Wednesday that Nasa's lawyers had dismissed Blue Origin's complaints.

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