Alexandra Abrams, who spent two and half years working on Blue Origin’s communications team, was once so convinced she’d spend her life working for Jeff Bezos’ space firm that she considered tattooing its feather logo on her body.
But now she is a whistleblower, exposing what she and others say is a toxic culture inside of Blue Origin. On Sept. 30, she published a critical essay co-authored by 20 other anonymous current and former Blue Origin employees. The writers allege a workplace that tolerated sexism among a clique of senior leaders close to Bezos and cut corners in a race to meet deadlines and beat rival space entrepreneurs to space, demoralizing workers and threatening the safety of their project.
Blue Origin offered a blanket statement in response but did not deny any of the specific allegations in the letter. “Blue Origin has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind,” the statement reads. “We provide numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct.
While Bezos’ highly publicized flight in July—and indeed every flight of the New Shepard in recent years—was an apparent success, the company’s next rocket, the New Glenn, and the rocket engines that will power it have faced serious delays. The allegations presented by Abrams and her colleagues provide one explanation for Blue’s unpredictable schedule.
“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,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith wrote in a companywide email discussing the allegations. “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.”
What the Blue Origin whistleblowers are worried about
Abrams told Quartz a different story, recalling a 2019 meeting with Smith and other senior executives about a campaign to build employee excitement around a Super Bowl commercial, one that was later pulled from the air because of its connection with Bezos’ divorce. She told Smith that the morale at the company was low. Smith, she said, didn’t acknowledge the news and changed the subject, behavior she says became a pattern. Blue declined to respond to specific questions about Abrams’ allegations.
“When the first human flight came out, I saw Blue Origin saying safety was their top mission,” Abrams says now. “From what I know, that was not the case.” She says that while the company’s engineers worked hard to deliver the best products, they were tasked by senior leaders to do too much, too quickly, with too few people to achieve their goals.
Some former employees who share Abrams’ critical assessment of Blue’s culture say they stilll trust the New Shepard. But Quartz also read several exit memos written by departing employees, and spoke to other Blue Origin workers, who share concerns about resources being stretched too thin to deliver a reliable product. “In this environment, safety is not an option, even if we repeatedly state that it is our highest priority,” one departing engineer wrote.
The US Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial spaceflight, says it will investigate safety issues at the company, which currently plans a second flight with passengers, including two tech entrepreneurs, on Oct. 12. William Shatner, who portrayed Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek television series, is rumored to be joining them.
But as Abrams notes, when it comes to space tourism, the FAA only has jurisdiction over the safety of the public—ensuring that wayward rockets don’t threaten nearby towns or air traffic. Passenger safety is explicitly out of bounds due to a law designed to encourage the nascent space-tourism industry by limiting red tape.
“The sense I got from the coverage of Branson and Bezos’s flights is that the goodwill that the public has for NASA is being transferred onto these flights,” Abrams says. “They are used to space launches from NASA and there is a ton of transparency. They may not understand these companies are not the same.”
How Abrams lost faith in Bezos
At Blue Origin, Abrams’ final role was as head of employee communications, a job that entailed transmitting company policies to the workforce and bringing feedback back to senior leaders. The role gave her significant insight across the company, with opportunities to confer with executive and employees in many departments.
Blue Origin says that Abrams was fired “after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations.” She believes the company is referring to an effort to develop an internal app that inadvertently left some company information on foreign servers, a problem she helped report and resolve.
Breaking government rules on space technology can be a firing offense, but Abrams denied that she received any such warnings, written or verbal. Instead, she says she was fired after a disagreement about changing employee contracts to force disputes, including over sexual harassment, into binding arbitration. Such a policy prevents employees from seeking accountability in courts and instead moves the venue to a private process where workers are at a heavy disadvantage to their employers.
The practice became a hot topic after Google reversed a similar policy to settle a lawsuit brought by shareholders following allegations of sexual harassment by several top executives. When Blue Origin proposed adding binding arbitration to its employee agreements, Abrams pushed back, warning about a backlash. Ultimately, she was able to convince executives to carve sexual harassment out of the arbitration policy. But the episode, she says, cost her the trust of Smith and other senior leaders. It also cost her trust in Blue Origin, after the company’s general counsel, she says, told her that the arbitration provision was important to Bezos.
“The fact that I knew Jeff Bezos did this personally broke any hope I had of Jeff being the solution,” Abrams says now.
The new contract language included an onerous non-disparagement clause in which employees agree to pay Blue Origin’s legal fees if the company ever sues to enforce the clause. Abrams signed the updated employee agreement before she was fired. She is bracing for the possibility that Blue Origin will bring a lawsuit that could bankrupt her.
“I felt complicit as the head of employee communications,” says Abrams, who never got that Blue Origin tattoo. Now, though, she says, “I feel that I am fulfilling my job description for the first time through this effort…to give agencies and the public the information they need to change their approach, to provide oversight in way that actually ensures safety.”