Employees at Jeff Bezos’ aerospace firm Blue Origin are outraged that senior leadership is pressuring workers to conduct a test launch of the company’s New Shepard rocket — designed to take wealthy tourists into space — while the COVID-19 pandemic devastates the United States.
To conduct the flight, Blue Origin officials are considering transporting employees from the company’s main headquarters in Kent, Washington — a town near Seattle where COVID-19 cases have surged — to a small town in West Texas called Van Horn. The town, which has a population of just over 2,000, is home to Blue Origin’s test launch facility where the company has conducted all past flights of the New Shepard rocket.
Many employees fear that traveling to Van Horn might expose them to the novel coronavirus and inadvertently introduce COVID-19 to the residents of the rural town where there is very little infrastructure to handle an outbreak. The Verge spoke exclusively with four Blue Origin employees who all asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the company. They say they are frustrated by the company’s desire to conduct a launch, as it could unnecessarily jeopardize the health of employees at Blue Origin and residents of Van Horn.
“It feels like the company is prioritizing its business goals and schedule above the safety of its employees and the community,” one employee tells The Verge.
In a meeting with the New Shepard team on Wednesday, April 1st, Blue Origin leadership talked about ways to do a trip to Van Horn with a smaller group than usual and suggested that employees should keep a low profile while in town, according to a recording provided to The Verge. In the meeting, numerous employees voiced concerns about the trip, and one manager said there may be employment repercussions if they didn’t agree with management’s decisions.
“I would say that you should ask yourself, as an individual, are you acting as a toxin in the organization, fanning discontent, or are you really trying to help our senior leaders make better decisions?” Jeff Ashby, a senior mission assurance director at Blue Origin and a former NASA astronaut, said to employees during the meeting.
Blue Origin is one of a select group of companies still operating in the state of Washington. On March 23rd, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order and called for all nonessential businesses in Washington to close. But Blue Origin has remained operational, as the company has been deemed essential due to its work with the Department of Defense. The company is currently developing a much larger rocket called New Glenn, which is being considered by the US Air Force to launch future national security satellites. New Shepard, however, is primarily geared toward space tourism, designed to go to the edge of space and back during an 11-minute flight.
The company was originally targeting April 10th for the next New Shepard launch and was working toward that date as recently as last weekend, to the concern of multiple employees. Then on Sunday, March 29th, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott instituted a mandatory two-week self-quarantine for travelers coming from states with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, including Washington, forcing Blue Origin to put the flight on hold. The company then learned from the Texas governor’s office that Blue Origin employees could be exempt from the quarantine if traveling to conduct the launch. After learning of the exemption, Blue Origin conducted the meeting to discuss ways of moving forward, but a new launch date has not been set yet.
All of the employees who spoke with The Verge felt that New Shepard is not a critical vehicle that needs to launch during this time. “In my view, it’s really a stretch,” one employee tells The Verge. “I don’t think that New Shepherd is mission essential to the United States in any way.” While the rocket is sometimes used to carry research payloads, the primary focus of the vehicle is to eventually carry wealthy thrill-seekers to space where they’ll experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
“What is essential about a vehicle that flies potentially billionaires to space?” one employee asks.
In a response to The Verge, Blue Origin said it would not comment on internal meetings. The company maintains that it is continuing to monitor “this rapidly evolving situation” and that there is no launch date set yet. “We hold safety as our highest value. Period,” a spokesperson told The Verge in an email. “We are still operating at our West Texas Launch Site where we have been running engine tests and will continue to do so. Given our mission essential designation from Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, we’ve been cleared by federal, state and local officials to continue to operate, and we are doing everything we can to safeguard our workforce and communities.”
When the company was still moving ahead with the April 10th launch, multiple Blue Origin employees expressed concerns to their managers and even top-level leadership. They say that their frustrations are shared by many throughout the company. Despite this, Blue Origin officials continued to move ahead, asking employees if they would be comfortable traveling to Van Horn to conduct the launch.
Several people have expressed apprehension about going, according to employees interviewed by The Verge. They believe that it would be difficult to maintain proper social distancing and safety procedures if employees ultimately did have to go down to Van Horn. All employees have to stay in hotels while in the town, and they are typically crowded together in conference rooms or mission control to conduct the launch. In an email to the New Shepard team, a Blue Origin official noted that the company would be “modifying our launch procedures with a reduced set of flight objectives to accommodate a smaller deployment crew.” But the employees are skeptical that will keep people safe, and they still think people would need to be close together during the launch preparations.
In Wednesday’s meeting, one employee asked if there would be “employment repercussions” if they chose not to travel.
“The conversation has been had, to be honest with you, with HR and everybody else,” Doug Kunzman, senior director of New Shepard operations, said. “But as far as any kind of decision on that, no, I’ve been given no guidance yet on that outcome. We’re hoping that, you know, it doesn’t come to that, but it may and that’s why I was put on the table.” Ashby later clarified that employees who disagreed with senior leadership’s decisions wouldn’t necessarily be fired but that they did have “options.”
The New Shepard rocket scheduled to launch on this flight is the same vehicle that Blue Origin plans to use to conduct its first human test flights later this year. Employees worry that the company’s fixation on this deadline is resulting in unsafe decisions. Blue Origin’s primary competitor at the moment is Virgin Galactic, which has designed its own vehicle to take customers to the edge of space and back and has already sent some of its employees to space during two test launches. Neither company has started flying customers on its vehicles.
“There’s this insatiable drive to be the first,” one employee says. “We’re in a race.”
Other aerospace companies have made the decision to stand down from launches in response to the pandemic. California-based Rocket Lab has postponed its next flight out of New Zealand to protect its workforce. Launches have been suspended from Europe’s primary spaceport in South America as well. However, other rocket companies are still in operation. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, for instance, are considered essential businesses and are still continuing work. SpaceX employees are still building the company’s giant Starship rocket down in Boca Chica, Texas, with plans to conduct some kind of tests in the coming weeks.
COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise in the United States, reaching more than 200,000 cases in the country. Around 30 states have issued “shelter-in-place” orders and closed nonessential businesses, while President Trump has extended social distancing guidelines until at least the end of April.
Currently, there are no confirmed cases in Culberson County, where Van Horn is located, according to Brenda Hinojos, the senior events coordinator for the town. She says that Blue Origin usually doesn’t say when it’s coming to Van Horn for launches, though the employees usually keep to themselves while visiting. However, she thinks a launch right now isn’t the best idea. “Right now really is not the time for them to be doing that,” Hinojos tells The Verge. “As of right now, even for them to come and eat and stay here, all our stuff — nothing’s open right now. Everything, you have to get it to go.” Van Horn only has a small clinic and hospital, and Hinojos says most patients are sent to El Paso or Odessa if they need serious care.
Meanwhile, some workers are already down in Van Horn performing maintenance on the New Shepard rocket. These full-time employees work multiple days in a row and then spend a set number of days at home with their families. Many of these workers don’t actually live in Van Horn but instead commute from other Texas towns or even areas outside of the state.
The employees in Kent expressed particular concern for these workers, as Blue Origin could let more of these long-distance commuters stay home if the company pushed back the launch date. “My biggest concern, flat out, is the sickness is spread by people traveling point to point. It can be reduced by people sheltering in place. We are doing the opposite of that. We are taking people to a location that is vulnerable and ill equipped to handle travelers at this time,” one employee says.
During the meeting, management suggested that these technicians could potentially lose their jobs if employees from Washington didn’t travel for the launch. “If we decide not to travel to Texas to do a flight, what happens to the technicians down there that operate the vehicle who no longer then have jobs?” Ashby asked. “Do they lose their jobs … because of our actions? I want us to be cognizant that our decisions don’t just affect us; they affect other people.”
Many employees grew frustrated with that claim in the meeting. “That’s really irresponsible,” one employee replied. “We work for the richest person on the planet; he can afford to continue paying some technicians during this.”
Bezos has said that his “own time is now wholly focused on COVID-19” when it comes to his other company, Amazon, and he’s shared photos of his meetings with Inslee on Instagram.
Blue Origin employees say there is work they could do that doesn’t involve traveling to Texas during a pandemic, such as reviewing materials that will help qualify the vehicle for its first human passengers. “We could continue getting work done,” one employee says. “It might not be necessarily working toward a launch, but we have a backlog of other work that we could be doing right now.”
While the Blue Origin employees are particularly upset about the New Shepard launch, many expressed frustration over the company’s overall response to the pandemic so far. They say that Blue Origin was late to encourage people to work from home and that some people are still commuting to the office when they don’t need to. “There are also people who are coming in to just use the office because they prefer it to working from home,” one employee says.
Because of management’s actions, some say this is prompting them to want to find new jobs and that they’ve heard similar sentiments from their co-workers. “I feel really disgusted with the company right now and with our leadership,” says one employee.