Jeff Bezos Is Being Knocked Back Down to Earth

After a summer of flying high, the space billionaire is facing a chaotic moment at his rocket company.

A photograph of Jeff Bezos, wearing a cowboy hat and a flight suit, taken after his successful trip to the edge of space
Joe Raedle / Getty

On the night he went to space, Jeff Bezos threw a party for his employees. The hotel restaurant in Van Horn, a town in West Texas not far from the launch site, was thrumming. Inside, someone had cut into the frosted Blue of Blue Origin on a big vanilla sheet cake. Outside, a live band jammed beneath a tent skimmed with café lights. Everyone was a little buzzed and a lot relieved. They had just launched their boss to space from the middle of the desert. That morning, as Bezos and the other passengers prepared to board, an anonymous voice was heard on the event’s live-stream saying, “We’re not fucking this up today.” They had followed through on that vow, thank heavens, and now they could finally exhale.

Bezos celebrated elsewhere, at a private party outside town. The Amazon founder had stepped down as CEO a couple weeks before the trip to focus on his space business and now, besides fulfilling his long-held dream of going to space, he had signaled to the world (and potential paying customers) that Blue Origin could take them too. Since then, he has doubled the time he spends at the company, from one afternoon a week to two, and Blue Origin announced that its next paying customers, two tech executives, would fly next month. William Shatner—yes, Captain Kirk himself—reportedly might join them.

The flashiness of Bezos’s summer flight, the celebrity rumors, the excitement of “some personal news: I’m going to space!” tweets from future passengers—all of it might suggest that Blue Origin is experiencing a meteoric rise. But the company is perhaps in its most chaotic moment since it was founded two decades ago. Whatever clarity Bezos might have experienced up there beyond the atmosphere, in those few glorious moments of weightlessness, back here on the ground, he is mired in the muddy matters of Earth.

The earliest sign of trouble came a few months before Bezos announced his trip, which was Blue Origin’s first attempt to fly people instead of payloads. (“If it’s not safe for me,” he later said, “it’s not safe for anyone.”) NASA was in the market for a lunar lander, and Bezos had pitched Blue Origin for the job. Bezos had shown off his concept for the lander, called Blue Moon, to the public, and he seemed confident that someday it would deliver Americans to the lunar surface for the first time since the 1970s. But NASA passed on Blue Origin’s bid last April, selecting instead its rival SpaceX, and the spacecraft technology that Elon Musk is currently developing in his own corner of Texas.

Blue Origin quickly contested NASA’s decision with a formal complaint. Then, in July, just a few days after his flight, Bezos took it a step further in perhaps the most Bezos way possible. He offered NASA, in a letter addressed directly to the administrator, a $2 billion discount on his lunar lander. The move surprised some people inside NASA, a federal agency accustomed to dealing with rigid budgets. But what’s a couple billion to one of the richest people on Earth?

NASA did not accept Bezos’s offer, and within weeks, Blue Origin escalated its fight by suing the space agency outright, arguing that the process that led NASA to choose SpaceX wasn’t fair. But according to documents prepared by NASA’s lawyers, reported this week by The Verge, the agency doesn’t seem prepared to budge. The gist of their argument is this: Blue Origin’s initial bid had come in at nearly double SpaceX’s offer, presumably because Blue Origin leadership seemed to believe that NASA might negotiate the price, as it has done in the past. But Blue Origin’s gamble didn’t work, and well—it’s too late now.

On top of this debacle, the company remains several years behind schedule on developing engines that it has promised to other rocket manufacturers and, according to Ars Technica, it’s in such a rush that it might ship the hardware off without finishing “full qualification testing.” Space companies—and space agencies like NASA, for that matter—are not generally known for meeting their usually ambitious deadlines, but still, this doesn’t look great.

Other problems have arisen closer to home. Yesterday, an essay appeared online about Blue Origin’s “toxic” workplace culture. The essay identified its authors as 21 current and former employees from multiple parts of the company—the New Shepard effort, the engine program, the test and flight-operations team, and others. It describes instances of sexism and sexual harassment against the company’s female employees and a disturbing approach to spaceflight safety that ignored input from the workers who knew the systems best. “Competing with other billionaires—and ‘making progress for Jeff’—seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule,” the essay reads. All but one of the essay’s authors are anonymous.

In response, Blue Origin’s CEO, Bob Smith, sent an email to employees yesterday that said the company had “no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind,” CNBC reported. Linda Mills, the head of communications at Blue Origin, said in a statement to The Atlantic that “safety is our highest priority and we have multiple ways for employees to raise safety concerns.”

I spoke with some of the letter’s authors this week, including the only one who would go on record, Alexandra Abrams, Blue Origin’s former head of employee communications. Abrams, who left the company last year, emceed the annual town halls, and she told me that Smith instructed her to make it harder for employees to ask him questions during the events. “I have a lot of concern for anyone stepping foot on a New Shepard vehicle because of the organizational dynamics inside of that company,” Abrams said. “I don’t know how you have informed consent when you don’t actually know how this company operates and how it built that rocket.” (In his letter to employees, Smith wrote that he “encourage[s] any member of Team Blue to speak directly with me if they have any concerns on any topic at any time,” according to CNBC.)

Despite working for the richest person in the world, some teams at Blue Origin lacked the investment they felt they needed to move at the pace Bezos expected, according to a former senior employee who worked on the company’s engines program, who requested anonymity because they feared professional retribution from Blue Origin. “I always hear what you hear on the news, ‘Oh, Jeff has given unlimited funds to Blue,’ ‘Blue has all this money,’” this person told me. “But they did not have the tools, they did not have the resources to get the job done.” The former employee and others told me that senior leadership promoted a culture that discouraged engineers from speaking up about safety concerns. “They did not want to hear them,” said this former employee, who attended weekly technical meetings where senior leaders and engineers would provide updates to Bezos. In her statement to The Atlantic, Mills said, “We stand by our safety record and believe that New Shepard is the safest space vehicle ever designed or built.”

Bezos has faced complaints about workplace practices and safety at Amazon for years, but in spaceflight, a good office culture can mean the difference between glorious success and deadly disaster. In January of 1986, when engineers urged NASA leaders to delay the launch of Challenger, warning that the season’s unusually cold temperatures could lead to catastrophe for the space shuttle, officials scoffed, annoyed at the possibility of a delay. “You’re never going to have enough money, you’re never gonna have enough time, and there’s going to be more technical challenges than you’ve ever dreamed of,” Ralph Roe, a NASA chief engineer who worked at the agency during the Challenger and Columbia disasters, told me last year. “It’s how you deal with those pressures that’s important. And looking back now, we didn’t handle those pressures very well.”

For years, Bezos has made a big deal out of Blue Origin’s motto: Gradatim ferociter, Latin for “Step by step, ferociously.” Employees are taught the mantra “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast,” that deliberate progress brings you to the finish line. But Bezos seems to no longer believe his own theories. Blue Origin may have beaten SpaceX to flying paying customers by a few months, but the company has fallen behind. New Shepard is just one piece of the space empire Bezos wants to build. There’s New Glenn, a rocket designed to reach orbit, a feat that SpaceX conquered a decade ago. There’s the lunar lander, which remains in limbo as the lawsuit plays out. And there’s “New Armstrong,” which Bezos mentioned at a press conference on the day of his flight. The other reporters around me raised their eyebrows; Bezos, who likes to name his rockets after American space pioneers, had hinted at this mystery project a few years ago but hasn’t revisited it since. At the party in town that night, I asked some employees about New Armstrong. Had the concept come up in recent meetings, and this was meant to be Bezos’s big reveal?

No idea, they told me. This was the first time they’d really heard about it. Name-checking a big goal before consulting with the engineers who might have to make it real—that’s a classic space-billionaire move. So far, it’s worked out for SpaceX. Blue Origin will have to figure out what it means for them, to continue “making progress for Jeff” on the next dream.