Former Blue Origin employee “would not trust” company’s vehicles to go to space

Author: CBS NEWS
A Blue origin vessel launching. Credit: CBS

A former employee at Blue Origin, the space company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, is speaking out about safety issues and workplace culture at the space company.

In an exclusive “CBS Mornings” interview with “60 Minutes+” correspondent Laurie Segall, the former employee, Alexandra Abrams, described pressure from leadership, including Bezos, that led to concerns from engineers and other technical staff about whether “making progress” was taking precedence over safety.

Abrams also described a culture of sexual harassment that demeans women, and policies that limited employees from speaking freely about harassment or discrimination.

Abrams is the face of a new essay — joined by 20 current and former employees — that outlines their concerns.

“The people who signed onto this essay are absolutely incredible, brave, brilliant human beings,” Abrams, who was the former head of employee communications for Blue Origin, told Segall. “I look at this group, and I see fighters for truth, fighters for safety, fighters for quality.”

Abrams said she was fired after she says senior leadership asked her to help roll out stricter agreements that she says took away employees’ rights to raise most disputes in court or to speak freely about alleged harassment or discrimination. She herself signed a nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreement. “I’ve gotten far enough away from it that I’m not afraid enough to let them silence me anymore,” she said.

Blue Origin says its mission is to enable a world where millions live and work in space. It has had 17 consecutive successful launches, including its first manned flight this summer with Bezos on board. Another mission is scheduled for next month.

Abrams said the essay attributed to her and 20 others was sent to the FAA before it was published online Thursday.

The essay says that in 2018, one team had documented “more than 1,000 problem reports related to the engines that power Blue Origin’s rockets, which had never been addressed.”

CBS News spoke with five of Abrams co-authors who are staying anonymous because they fear being blacklisted in the industry. Several mentioned pressure to compete in the private space race against billionaires Elon Musk and Richard Branson.

“It was great that Blue Origin was smooth, and steady, and slow until Jeff started becoming impatient and Elon and Branson were getting ahead,” Abrams said. “And then we started to feel this increasing pressure and impatience that would definitely filter down from leadership.”

Asked if she would trust a Blue Origin vehicle going to space, Abrams said, “Unfortunately, Laurie, I would not trust a Blue Origin vehicle going to space.”

Two former Blue Origin employees CBS News spoke with said they wouldn’t feel comfortable flying in the company’s spacecraft.

A 2020 internal memo that was written by a Blue Origin engineer as he left the company, and was obtained by CBS News, reads, “Our path is not a sufficiently safe path.”

“You cannot create a culture of safety and a culture of fear at the same time. They are incompatible,” said Abrams. “Oftentimes when I would try to reconcile what I was hearing from the engineers who were close to the vehicle versus leadership about risk and safety, I would often go to leadership and say, ‘Okay, how am I supposed to think about this?’ And often the response would be, ‘Oh, well that person in particular just doesn’t have a high enough risk tolerance.'”

The essay also accuses Blue Origin of being “rife with sexism.” It says some women warned “new female hires to stay away” from one executive who appeared to be “protected by his close personal relationship with Bezos — it took him physically groping a female subordinate for him to finally be let go.”

“Women at Blue Origin were absolutely treated differently than men. Their ideas were not valued as much. They were not listened to,” Abrams said.

In a statement to CBS News, Blue Origin did not address safety allegations in the essay, but said the company has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind – and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct.

Blue Origin said Abrams was fired after repeated warnings for issues regarding federal export control regulations. Abrams said she never received any warnings regarding issues of that nature.

CBS News reached out to the FAA for comment but has not yet heard back.

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