Blue Origin’s plan to launch astronauts to space includes inadequate protections for workers

By Brenda Rappaport

A lack of federal whistleblower protections is “an enormous factor” hindering a safety review of the company that hopes to soon fly tourists around the moon, the U.S. government’s transportation safety board said Friday.

The National Transportation Safety Board was reviewing a report released by Blue Origin LLC, a privately owned company run by Inc. founder Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin hopes to launch a capsule from New Shepard, a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. During the six-day journey, the capsule will carry people into space and return to Earth, a process that could happen as soon as next year.

SpaceX, another private company, has also successfully flown tourists.

“Blue Origin, like many commercial entities, lacks whistleblower protections for employees of the company,” said Charles Leocha, director of the advocacy group, which is supporting the review. “That leaves many employees without proper channels of complaint.”

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin pay NASA millions of dollars a year to use rockets and space-flight services built and operated by the space agency. As such, they are candidates for federal benefits that encourage employees to report safety and other problems, such as whistleblower protections, Leocha said.

Robert Howard, assistant administrator for air, space and missile safety for the Federal Aviation Administration, said Blue Origin was operating in a partially licensed industry — that is, Blue Origin was using on-the-ground portions of an existing launch vehicle for launch.

“FAA has ‘permissive’ licensing authority for a limited time,” Howard said, “which means that any rate of use can be up to seven launches at a time. However, the agency is evaluating this particular launch site on a ‘provisional’ basis pending further information.”

Howard added that FAA plans to take a more in-depth look at Blue Origin and the safety record of the New Shepard launch-and-landing system it is developing.

“The safety of the passengers remains our top priority,” Howard said. “Blue Origin, in conjunction with NASA, is under a large DoD contract for developing the vehicle and working with NASA and (commercial spaceflight company) Sierra Nevada Corp. on its crewed vehicles.”

Friday’s NNSB report cited a previous lawsuit from Blue Origin employees against the company and looked at various safety issues including NASA’s review of the company’s training program for the launch and return portion of the suborbital flight.

The suit alleged that inadequate supervision and unsafe staffing caused injuries and deaths at the company, according to the report.

Blue Origin disputes the suit and the NNSB staff’s conclusions. In a letter to the board, senior vice president Roger Davey wrote that the company is “committed to a rigorous program of training and experience” at the New Shepard launch facility.

He also said the company has had lots of training for engineers and has addressed the issue of how to communicate in the event of a launch accident. “Multiple opportunities have been provided to the employees to raise concerns about any issues, but no issues have been raised,” he wrote.

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