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The US Federal Aviation Administration says it is looking into safety concerns raised by 21 current and former employees at Blue Origin, the space exploration company owned by Jeff Bezos.
In a post published on Thursday, the employees described a litany of what they claimed were severe cultural failings, including sexual discrimination, overwork and a prioritisation of speed over safety, as Bezos races fellow billionaires including Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson to dominate space.
“At Blue Origin, a common question during high-level meetings was, ‘When will Elon or Branson fly?’” the post said. “Competing with other billionaires — and ‘making progress for Jeff’ — seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule.”
In response, the administration said: “The FAA takes every safety allegation seriously, and the agency is reviewing the information.”
The post was authored by Alexandra Abrams, Blue Origin’s former head of employee communications, and 20 other unnamed current and former workers from across the company, including its engineering and human resources teams.
“When Jeff Bezos flew to space this July, we did not share his elation,” it read. “Instead, many of us watched with an overwhelming sense of unease. Some of us couldn’t bear to watch at all.”
The post went on to allege that employees, particularly women, were subjected to “dehumanising” demands on their time and “consistently inappropriate” comments from some members of senior leadership.
It alleged one unnamed senior leader “once instructed a group of women with whom he was collaborating: ‘You should ask my opinion because I am a man.’” Another was forced to leave after “physically groping a female subordinate”, following a string of inappropriate behaviour, the post said.
Echoing concerns previously voiced about Amazon’s executive team, Abrams and her co-authors accused Bezos of creating a team at Blue Origin that was “mostly male and overwhelmingly white. One-hundred per cent of the senior technical and program leaders are men.”
In an emailed statement, the company defended its record. “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,” it said.
“We stand by our safety record and believe that New Shepard is the safest space vehicle ever designed or built.”
The company also said Abrams had been “dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations”, according to a spokesperson. Abrams denied that claim to CBS News.
A representative for Bezos did not return a request for comment.
The row is the latest complication for Blue Origin, which has been funded entirely by Bezos selling his Amazon shares.
The company has been engaged in a public tit-for-tat with Musk’s SpaceX as both he and Bezos compete for the same Nasa contracts, with SpaceX so far coming out on top.
Following Blue Origin’s filing of a lawsuit seeking to block Nasa’s award to SpaceX for a lunar mission, Musk earlier this week told journalist Kara Swisher: “You cannot sue your way to the moon, no matter how good your lawyers are.”
In response, Amazon circulated among journalists a 13-page document detailing lawsuits brought by SpaceX.