Watch Live: William Shatner Awaits Launch to Edge of Space in Blue Origin Rocket
The actor who played Captain Kirk and three others will lift off soon in a tourist spacecraft built by Jeff Bezos’ company.,
The New Shepard tourist rocket has been a bright spot for Blue Origin, but other areas of the company have recently faced turmoil and difficulties.
In September, Alexandra Abrams, the former head of employee communications at Blue Origin, published an essay with 20 unnamed current and former employees of Blue Origin saying the company’s work culture was rife with sexism and that internal safety concerns were often dismissed by management. Working quickly to launch the company owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos into space on the New Shepard took priority over focusing on safety matters, the employees said.
Since publishing the essay, Ms. Abrams said in an interview that she had received supportive messages from current Blue Origin employees and engineers. She said she also had heard from employees at other companies describing their workplace difficulties. That response surprised her, as she had expected an onslaught of attacks from others in the small aerospace industry. “I personally was very heartened to see the responses, from everyone but Blue Origin,” Ms. Abrams said.
Blue Origin disputed the allegations in the essay, saying in a statement that the company has an internal hotline for sexual harassment complaints and that New Shepard was the “safest space vehicle ever designed or built.” The company also said Ms. Abrams was fired over “repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations.”
Ms. Abrams said that was false, and that she was fired in 2019 over her disagreement with a new policy that she was asked to help rollout to prohibit workers from banding together to take legal action over workplace issues and force them to settle disputes in private arbitration with the company. Her decision to speak out about Blue Origin’s work culture, she said, came after hearing complaints and troubling stories from friends still at Blue Origin. The essay’s release made the current and former employees nervous, and resurfaced trauma from the sexual harassment some had experienced, Ms. Abrams said, “but they knew it was the right thing to do.”
“Even if there are absolutely zero issues with all of Blue’s programs, which is absolutely not the case, a toxic culture bursting with schedule pressure and untrustworthy leaders breeds and encourages failures and mistakes each and every day,” she added.
One immediate challenge Blue Origin is facing concerns its bigger, more powerful rocket, New Glenn, whose debut launch has been delayed by about two years. And development of the engines that power New Glenn, called BE-4, has been marred by technical hurdles. The company is selling those engines to another company, United Launch Alliance, which needs them to power its next-generation Vulcan rocket. The Pentagon picked Vulcan last year to launch the majority of its satellites to space through 2027, and a forthcoming NASA mission will use it to send a robotic lander to the moon.
Delivery of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines to U.L.A., though, is months behind schedule, worrying Pentagon officials who fear the Vulcan rocket might not be ready in time to launch its first national security satellites in 2022. Blue Origin had pitched its New Glenn rocket to the Air Force for that contract but lost to U.L.A. and SpaceX, the company led by Elon Musk and whose Falcon rockets will also launch some Pentagon satellites.
Blue Origin was hit with another loss in April on a lucrative NASA program to send the first American astronauts to the moon since 1972. The company partnered with three seasoned aerospace companies — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — to develop and pitch its Blue Moon lunar lander to NASA. But the agency, facing a funding shortfall, decided it could only afford to select a cheaper bid pitched by SpaceX.
Blue Origin protested NASA’s decision to pick SpaceX with the Government Accountability Office, which adjudicates contract disputes, but lost. The company then sued NASA to overturn SpaceX’s award in federal court, where litigation is expected to wrap up sometime in November.