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Bezos’ Blue Origin workplace is ‘sexist and toxic’, while company sues Nasa over Moon

Image credit: reuters

Twenty-one employees of Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space company have signed an open letter, describing the workplace culture as ‘sexist and toxic'. Meanwhile, Blue Origin is pursuing legal action against Nasa over a lucrative space contract.

The open letter, signed by 21 current and former Blue Origin employees, claims the rocket company fosters a ‘toxic’ and sexist environment, leaving staffers feeling ‘dehumanised’ and causing some to have suicidal thoughts. The damning letter also accuses the spaceflight company, created by Amazon founder Bezos, of sacrificing safety to get ahead in his space race with rival fellow billionaires Sir Richard Branson, at Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk, at SpaceX.

"Competing with other billionaires – and ‘making progress for Jeff’ – seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule," wrote Alexandra Abrams, former head of employee communications at Blue Origin. Abrams, who was fired from Blue Origin in 2019 (for transgressions refuted by Abrams), signed her name alongside 20 anonymous current and former employees.

"When Jeff Bezos flew to space this July, we did not share his elation," the letter said. "Instead, many of us watched with an overwhelming sense of unease. Some of us couldn’t bear to watch at all."

Some employees said they wouldn't ride on a Blue Origin rocket due to safety concerns, with one person adding that it's "lucky" nothing catatrosphic has happened yet with regard to an accelerated New Shepard launch schedule. The letter stated: "In the opinion of an engineer who has signed on to this essay, '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."

Also detailed in the letter are accusations that Blue Origin and Bezos promote a culture of toxicity and sexism. According to the letter, numerous senior leaders at Blue Origin have been "known to be consistently inappropriate with women". The letter acknowledges that gender gaps are common within the space industry, but reiterates that Blue Origin employees nevertheless faced extensive sexism.

"Another former executive frequently treated women in a condescending and demeaning manner, calling them 'baby girl', or 'baby doll', or 'sweetheart' and inquiring about their dating lives," the letter said, noting that the man was reported to HR multiple times for sexual harassment.

His behaviour became so infamous, the letter alleges, that women at the company would warn new female employees to stay away from that particular executive, who was only fired after he physically groped a female subordinate.

Blue Origin has over 3,600 employees around the world, with the company’s entire senior technical and program leaders being men. The overwhelming majority of all staff are also white and male, the letter states.

Employees who raised concerns regarding the safety of the company’s rockets were dismissed as Bezos raced to compete with Branson and Musk. The letter suggests that "some of the engineers who ensure the very safety of the rockets" were either forced out or paid off after internally voicing criticisms.

In a statement, the Federal Aviation Administration said it is reviewing the safety concerns brought up in the open letter: "The FAA takes every safety allegation seriously and the agency is reviewing the information."

Blue Origin staff have also voiced complaints about their view being suppressed. According to the letter, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith personally directed one of the signees to not "make it easy" for employees to ask awkward questions at 'town hall' meetings, one of the company's few forums for live discussion.

Inner critics who spoke up were also forced out, according to the letter. The toxicity goes as far as senior leadership looking to take a toll on their employees’ mental health. According to the letter, memos from Blue Origin's leaders stated that the company needs to "get more out of our employees" and that employees should consider it a "privilege to be a part of history".

A directive of the company, in pursuit of SpaceX, is that "burnout was part of their labor strategy", the letter claimed. Former and current employees have described their experience at Blue Origin as "dehumanising" and that they are "terrified of speaking out against the wealthiest man on the planet". Others said they have experienced suicidal thoughts after having their "passion for space manipulated in such a toxic environment".

The letter – published on 30 September on the website Lioness, an online platform that often works with whistleblowers – concludes: "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."

In response, a Blue Origin spokesperson said: "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."

Blue Origin is planning to launch its second civilian space tourism flight on 12 October.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin is embroiled in an ongoing legal stand-off with both Nasa and SpaceX. Blue Origin is claiming that it unfairly lost the Human Landing System contract. Nasa's terse response is that Blue Origin "bet and lost" on the lunar lander tender.

According to an unsealed copy of Nasa's legal argument against Blue Origin's claims, obtained by The Verge through a Freedom of Information Act request, Nasa's lawyers wrote that Blue Origin did not submit a proposal with its best price. The company, instead, "made an assumption about the Agency's HLS budget, built its proposal with this figure in mind, and also separately made a calculated bet that if Nasa could not afford Blue Origin's initially proposed price, the Agency would select Blue Origin for award and engage in post-selection negotiations to allow Blue Origin to lower its price".

The legal statement continues: "Realising now that it gambled and lost, Blue Origin seeks to use GAO's procurement oversight function to improperly compel Nasa to suffer the consequences of Blue Origin's ill-conceived choices."

Following these legal arguments, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled in favour of Nasa. Subsequently, Blue Origin took its argument to the US Court of Federal Claims, where the legal matter remains pending.

Nasa's lawyers also noted that Blue Origin's legal stalling is putting the overall Artemis Program at risk by causing delays and increasing political uncertainty.

Commenting on Blue Origin's, and Bezos', legal tactics, SpaceX's Musk drily commented: "He should put more of his energy into getting into orbit than lawsuits. You can't sue your way to the Moon, no matter how good your lawyers are."

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