Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is facing an outpouring of internal criticism even as it begins regularly flying people into space. Current and former employees say that its culture is not only toxic for employees, but could put its passengers at risk.
As the company prepares for its second launch with human passengers on Oct. 13, it’s worth understanding what these concerns mean for Blue Origin, which has a near-spotless launch record with its New Shepard suborbital rocket.
The New Shepard is designed to carry up to six passengers about 100 km (60 miles) above the planet on eleven-minute flights. It first flew in 2015, immediately winning plaudits as the first fully-reusable suborbital rocket system. Two different versions of the vehicle flew nine times through 2019, when the company said it expected to start selling tickets. But those plans were delayed in favor of three more years of development, and a third New Shepard took passengers to the edge of space for the first time earlier this year.
Blue has declined to talk about why New Shepard was delayed, and how the vehicle’s design evolved, although CEO Bob Smith told employees in an internal email that he was confident in the “methodical and pain-staking process to certify our vehicle.” Still, the New Shepard’s first passenger flight—along with the public attention it earned—spurred employees to share their concerns about how a culture they see as hostile to feedback might short change safety.
Engineers have some specific ways of thinking about safety. They are trained to love a process, cherish redundancy, and care deeply about clear communication. It’s the best way to ensure that these fiendishly complex machines, managing huge amounts of power in extreme conditions, don’t fail.
But insiders who spoke to Quartz say senior executives saw employees who questioned company plans as troublemakers. Requests for additional resources and staff to meet goals were denied. And Bezos’ personal rivalry with entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Elon Musk appeared to override concerns about safety, they add.
“We sincerely hope the NS-18 crew has a nominal flight this week,” Alexandra Abrams, who is the public face 20 currenta nd former Blue Origin employees who wrote a whistleblowing letter this month, said in a statement. “Even if, by some incredible chance, zero issues exist within Blue’s products today, a toxic culture bursting with schedule pressure and untrustworthy leaders, breeds and encourages failures and mistakes each and every day.”
Blue Origin’s race to New Shepard’s first human flight
New Shepard clearly won Bezos’ confidence ahead of his own flight on July 20, which also included his brother, a paying passenger, and an aviation pioneer. The company says safety is the top priority, and some former Blue employees say they would ride the rocket. This time around, Blue Origin vice president Audrey Powers will be on the flight, alongside actor William Shatner and two investors who participated in the auction. (Blue hasn’t said if Shatner is paying for the flight, or being paid to fly.)
Powers has been an attorney for Blue Origin since 2013, but took charge of New Shepard operations in May; she last worked as an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin before going to law school. Blue declined to make Powers or any employee who worked on New Shepard’s development available for an interview.
Current and former employees who did talk to Quartz without the company’s permission said they worried about accumulating “technical debt,” a term of art for the work left behind when engineers use quick fixes to meet deadlines or solve problems, with the intention of completing coordinated changes in the design or a full suite of testing down the road. It’s not necessarily bad to accrue this kind of debt, but Blue engineers worried that too much of it was because their team was understaffed.
Engineers also cited a decision to remove two planned test flights from New Shepard’s development path in 2019. “Insisting on the Highest Standards is not trimming scope for a human flight in order to meet a mandated date,” a departing engineer wrote in an exit memo that year. Blue did not answer questions about the cancelled tests, but a spokesperson said “we were targeting as early as 2019 for our first human flight, and all delays from that point were the result of defaulting to safety to complete our Mission Assurance and Certification activities.”
However, a number of employees working on New Shepard departed because of those decisions and their concerns about safety. And at least seventeen others departed the company after Bezos’ first flight, including the former leader of the New Shepard program.
The challenge of shifting from development to operations
Space engineers talk about the difficulty of moving a technology program from development and testing, and into regular operations. Bill Gerstenmaier, a long-time NASA official who is now a senior SpaceX executive, tells a story about how NASA engineers believed the Space Shuttle’s chance of failure during its first flight was about 1 in 500. When engineers went back and used actual flight data to recalculate that estimate, they found it was actually 1 in 12.
“When systems are performing well and in-flight anomalies are reducing, that is time to become concerned and look harder for failures,” Gerstenmaier said in a 2017 speech. “This time of success is the time to add instrumentation and run extra tests. There is always an unknown waiting to be discovered.”
Blue Origin, which began as a research and development shop, faced a challenge taking its New Shepard design and flying it regularly with human passengers. Part of the problem were Blue’s growing ambitions: The company won two major contracts for its orbital New Glenn rocket and the engines that power it in 2018, and employees said the company shifted staff from the New Shepard program to these other development efforts before the passenger vehicle’s design was finalized.
Some engineers said they were concerned about understaffed teams working long hours to address anomalies or prepare for early morning launches, reporting shifts ranging from 14 to 17 hours. A Blue spokesperson said that launch operators and flight controllers follow Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for crew rest, which are tracked by the company’s safety officials.
The rocket business has a burnout problem
Blue Origin is not the only organization to deal with questions about over-worked employees; SpaceX, its main rival, has its own history of burned-out staff working crushing hours, and Blue has actively sought to learn from it. But even SpaceX has faced the reality that 80-hour workweeks are only sustainable for so long. Musk’s firm reorganized, partially at NASA’s request, after a 2015 launch failure made clear they needed more focus on reliability.
“It’s a growth thing,” Brian Bjelde, SpaceX’s head of human resources, told Quartz in 2016. “When you’re a small team and you’re in the garage shop, it’s easy to have that awareness. When you’re building lots of technical hardware at a good clip, it behooves you to have these added layers. It’s not necessarily an added hierarchical layer, it’s an investment in reliability.”
Chris Thompson, who managed spacecraft development at companies like Boeing, SpaceX, and most recently Astra, told Quartz that balance is necessary between “normal” work weeks, and the reality that, to meet deadlines, there will need to be periods of higher intensity. Building a culture that reflects that goal isn’t easy, and starts with hiring people who are enthusiastic and aligned with the company mission.
Within Blue Origin, some employees who believe they are pursuing a humanity-changing mission have lost trust in their managers. In apparent response to a Washington Post story on Blue’s troubled culture, Bezos tweeted out an old magazine cover that questioned Amazon’s business model, writing that “this was just one of the many stories telling us all the ways we were going to fail.”
Today’s critics, however, are current and former Blue Origin employees who want the company to succeed. Abrams says Bezos’ reaction “mirror[s] how Blue’s leadership often deals with issues raised internally: denial, personal attacks, and/or complete dismissal. Jeff’s recent tweet seems to compare serious safety and harassment concerns with past media criticism of the profitability of Amazon’s business model, as if they were the same.”