By Carlos Morales
It’s been about five months since Blue Origin last tested its New Shepard rocket at its Van Horn facility. The space tourism company — owned by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos — had pressured employees at its Washington state headquarters to travel to the small West Texas town to carry out the company’s next test launch amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Listen to the complete interview by pressing play on the above audio player.
Carlos Morales: So Lauren, Blue Origin was at one point pressuring employees and looking to transport them from Washington State — an area that’s hard hit by the coronavirus — to Van Horn, and all for a test launch?
Loren Grush: As I understand it, originally they had been targeting a test launch for April 10th, and then that was indefinitely postponed when new quarantine restrictions were put in place by the Texas governor. But then Blue Origin learned that they could get an exemption from those quarantine rules because they’re considered an essential business, or at least the aerospace sector is. So once they learned that, they had a meeting with their team to discuss ways to move forward with the launch. They were talking about how to keep a low profile and going with a smaller crew. A lot of the employees raised concerns during that meeting about traveling and asked if they didn’t want to go, would there be employment repercussions? And the answer was not a solid one.
CM: You also spoke to four employees of the company. What did they tell you about the company trying to push through this test launch in the middle of a pandemic?
LG: The employees I spoke to are scared and anxious. They and others that I didn’t speak to had voiced concerns to management and said that it was a very widespread feeling. I think Blue Origin is trying to reconcile how to continue working, but also listen to their employees and their concerns.
CM: Now, since this reporting, Lauren, you’ve also confirmed that at least three Blue Origin employees have tested positive for COVID-19. And this is precisely part of the reason these employees you spoke to were concerned — the potential potential transmission of the virus from from Washington to Van Horn or vise versa. Can you say more about some of these cases?
LG: Right. So what we know is that one of the cases that they found was in the headquarters as early as last Friday. I think it just goes to show that you might think that all of the employees are are healthy. But then you travel and then that incubation period ends and then you’re in a new place… so I think that’s what these employees were concerned about.
CM: What’s driving the push to conduct a launch of a rocket that isn’t essential?
LG: I think the main thing is just trying to maintain business as usual right now. So many companies are being forced to shut down. I also think that, you know, there is a bit of a race to become the first company to market. I know that Blue Origin is very eager to put people on this rocket by the end of this year. That’s still their goal as it was relayed to me. But from what I’ve heard, the employees said that there is other work that can be done that does not require a test launch at the moment. So, you know, they’re thinking, why don’t we pivot to that right now instead of pushing for it with this launch with a lot of people are scared?
CM: There are people still working at Blue Origin at that Van Horn facility, some technicians, I believe, that are at the site. Can you tell me a little bit more about them?
LG: So as I understand it, these technicians, they’ll work a certain number days in a row at Van Horn and then they’ll go home. And a lot of these technicians don’t actually live in Van Horn. They commute either from other cities in Texas or even out of state. So they’re continuing to commute during this time from places that might have high infection rates as well. And so during that meeting where management was talking about ways of conducting the launch, they insinuated that if people didn’t travel for the upcoming test launch, that these technicians would eventually lose their jobs.
Blue Origin has come out saying that that would not be the case, but that is what was insinuated during the meeting. And I think there’s a lot of concern for these technicians because they are actively traveling right now. That’s been the hot topic, right? Travel is what people are really scared of. And so it’s kind of an unknown what’s going to happen to them for now.
CM: And Lauren, I’m sure you reached out to the company. What did they have to say about all of these these plans?
LG: Well, I think the main thing right now is that there is no target launch date set, but they did address that the health and safety of their employees is important to them. They wouldn’t address the meeting that I listened to, but they are saying that they are trying to take the appropriate precautions and make sure that people are working from home. So this is on the company’s mind. I’m hoping that they’ll listen to the employees have been voicing these concerns.