FAA Says Lack of Federal Whistleblower Protections “Huge Factor” Hindering Blue Origin’s Safety Review | Local News

FAA Says Lack of Federal Whistleblower Protections “Huge Factor” Hindering Blue Origin’s Safety Review

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But that review has been crippled by a lack of legal protections for whistleblowers in the commercial space flight industry, according to emails from Federal Aviation Administration investigators obtained by CNN Business.

The FAA also confirmed in a statement Friday that its review of Blue Origin is now closed, saying that “the FAA has investigated safety allegations made against Blue Origin’s manned space flight program” and “has found no specific security problem “.

Emails obtained by CNN Business, however, reveal that investigators were unable to speak with any of the engineers who anonymously signed the letter. Investigators were also unable to go to Blue Origin and request documents or interviews with current employees or management, according to the FAA.

The situation shows how commercial spaceflight companies like Blue Origin are operating in a regulatory bubble, isolated from much of the scrutiny of other industries. According to the agency, no federal whistleblower law would protect employees in the commercial space industry if they aided FAA investigators.

The commercial space industry is in a legally designated “learning period” until at least October 2023 – a “learning period” that has been extended on several occasions, most recently by a 2015 law called the Commercial Space Launch. Competitiveness Act. The idea is to allow the industry to mature and give businesses a chance to self-regulate without undue government interference. But this designation effectively bars federal regulators from implementing certain new rules or exercising the same oversight powers for commercial space companies as they do for aviation.

This meant investigators had to rely on current and former Blue Origin employees who volunteered to come forward to offer information.

But “no technical expert has contacted us or provided specific documentation regarding the security claims. We understand that there are no federal” whistleblower protection “laws protecting employees of commercial space companies. against retaliation for reporting security concerns, ”one emailed. from FAA investigators who was sent to Alexandra Abrams, who was the only one of the trial signatories to be officially registered and said she led the review on Monday.

“This is in stark contrast to the extensive protections available to whistleblowers in the commercial aviation industry. We believe this has been a huge factor in our inability to pursue this investigation,” the email continued.

“[T]The FAA was unable to thoroughly investigate this matter and, therefore, could not justify the safety concerns described in the document you provided. No further action can be recommended at this time, “the email read.

Abrams – who worked for the company for two and a half years, during which time she worked in public relations before setting up the company’s employee communications department before being fired in 2019 – told CNN Business, whom current and former employees it keeps in touch with, have expressed serious concerns about the future of their careers if they agree to cooperate with investigators.

In an email to investigators, Abrams writes that some employees “fear bodily harm, loss of livelihood and career, humiliation” and of being targeted by Bezos.

She also shares a text exchange with a Blue Origin engineer who had planned to provide an anonymous written statement to the FAA but then changed her mind, fearing the statement could trace its source. The engineer adds that they “hope other people … will speak up and say something,” according to a screenshot taken from the text exchange.

This pattern continued for weeks in discussions with more than a dozen current and former employees, Abrams said.

“[U]Unfortunately, without speaking to anyone or having the opportunity to review the documentation, our hands are tied, ”wrote an FAA investigator in a separate email to Abrams sent on November 3.

Blue Origin has consistently said safety is the company’s top priority, and according to the company there have been no major issues with its two crewed flights, one of which sent Bezos into space. in July, or more than a dozen unmanned test missions. flew in recent years.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Blue’s whistleblowers

The 2,200-word essay was published in September by Lioness, who works with whistleblowers and has agreed to represent pro bono signers. In it, the 21 signatories – most of whom have spent at least two years with the company and include engineers and senior executives who have worked in various departments and programs, according to a list of signatories reviewed by CNN Business – speak out against what they describe as a toxic workplace where “professional dissent” is “actively suppressed.”

In a statement in response to the trial, Blue Origin said it has “no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind. We provide many opportunities for employees, including an anonymous 24-hour hotline. / 24 and 7 days a week, and will promptly investigate any new malpractice complaints. ” The company did not respond to requests for comment on specific claims in the trial.

While every rocket launch is inherently risky due to the complexity and power of the vehicles involved, some engineers at the company also pushed back what they saw as a desire to prioritize speed over safety, according to the company. test and internal documents. A senior engineer, for example, resigned in April 2020 to protest “schedule-driven driving [that] is unable to produce safe systems engineering. “

“In this environment, security is not an option, although we repeatedly state that it is our top priority,” said the letter of resignation, obtained by CNN Business.

The essay published in September also says many of its authors “say they wouldn’t fly a Blue Origin vehicle.”

The FAA said in a statement at the time that it “takes every security claim seriously and the agency is reviewing the information.”

But that statement belied a lack of authority the agency had to research or corroborate the assertions in the essay.

“In most cases, the FAA is explicitly prohibited from issuing regulations to protect the health and safety of humans aboard commercial spacecraft,” reads an October 2021 synopsis of the legal framework. from the Congressional Research Service.

Instead, the current law “takes an informed consent approach. Operators must inform spaceflight participants (ie. Certified their spacecraft as safe, “the document states.

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