Blue Origin is taking William Shatner to space — but can it distract from internal criticism?

Blue Origin is taking William Shatner to space — but can it distract from internal criticism?
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William Shatner, famous for his role as Captain James Kirk in “Star Trek,” is going for a ride on the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket. However, recent allegations by a group of current and former Blue Origin employees may make him think again of going on a 10-minute suborbital hop into the final frontier.

Writing for the Lioness, Alexandra Abrams and 20 other current and former Blue Origin employees describe an alleged toxic corporate culture at Blue Origin rife with sexism, sexual harassment and favoritism. However, one item that may concern Shatner and the other three people who will be riding the New Shepard into space on Oct. 12, is whether the New Shepard is as safe as it could be.

“In the opinion of an engineer who has signed on to this essay, ‘Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far.’ Many of this essay’s authors say they would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle.” The article makes a reference to the dysfunctional safety culture that existed at NASA just prior to the Challenger disaster. In response to the article, the FAA has opened an investigation. On the other hand, New Shepard has launched and landed 17 times with only one partial failure that would not have resulted in loss of life had there been a crew in the capsule.

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The notion that Blue Origin’s corporate culture is toxic would tend to explain why the company is experiencing such a high turnover. According to a story in CNBC, the uptick in resignations has been directly attributed to the leadership of Bob Smith, the CEO handpicked by owner Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosReplace Kamala Harris with William Shatner to get kids excited about space exploration Shatner pushes back on Prince William over space flight comments Shatner says he was struck by 'fragility of this planet' on trip to space MORE.

The turnover and the corporate culture has impacted Blue Origin’s various programs, including the New Shepard suborbital rocket, the New Glenn orbital rocket, the Blue Moon lunar lander and the BE-4 rocket engine. Only the New Shepard has become operational, with the first crewed flight taking place last July, which included Bezos as a passenger. Every other project being conducted by Blue Origin is suffering delays and other problems.

Back in 2018, according to a story in Ars Technica, Blue Origin commissioned a study of its main rival, SpaceX, to ask the question, why has Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskPrince William urges focus on saving planet instead of space travel Democrats' electric vehicle push sparks intense lobbying fight Blue Origin is taking William Shatner to space — but can it distract from internal criticism? MORE’s space launch company become so successful? The study came back with a number of what would seem to be common-sense suggestions. Blue Origin should become more customer-focused in its business dealings. Bezos’ company should also design hardware such as spacecraft and rocket engines with a view to reducing costs. No evidence exists that Blue Origin has taken those suggestions to heart. In the meantime, SpaceX is upending the aerospace industry and leaving Blue Origin in the dust.

What should Jeff Bezos do? He could start by being a more hands-on manager of his space company. He should at least consider firing his management team and replacing it with people who are dedicated to creating a functional corporate culture that rewards success and innovation and has no tolerance for misbehavior. A new management team should implement the suggestions of the 2018 study as appropriate.

Incidentally, Bezos should drop the absurd lawsuit against NASA and SpaceX over the former’s award of the lunar Human Landing System to the rival company. Musk is right in saying that one cannot sue one’s way to the moon. Instead, Bezos should set his engineers to refining the design of the Blue Moon lunar lander for the second round of NASA awards.

In the meantime, Blue Origin can bask in the glory of launching Shatner into space. The excitement among “Star Trek” fans is incandescent. Bezos is, no doubt, enjoying the distraction from the woes besetting his space launch company that the anticipated launch is providing. But he should beware the distraction is only temporary. Blue Origin’s problems will not go away by themselves.

Incidentally, three other people will be flying with Shatner. They are Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations, Chris Boshuizen, a San Francisco tech entrepreneur, and Glen de Vries, the founder of a medical software company called Medidata Solutions.

Musk must be looking on at the drama at Blue Origin with some amusement. His Crew Dragon goes into orbit and is now taking regular trips to the International Space Station. The recent Inspiration4 flight raised money for St. Jude’s Research Hospital. The SpaceX Starship promises to take humans to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Blue Origin has a long way to go before it can match that record of achievement.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.