by Douglas Messier
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said it will examine safety issues about Blue Origin’s crewed suborbital New Shepard vehicle raised by a group of current and former employees in an open letter published on Thursday.
The announcement comes 11 days before four paying customers, one reported to be Star Trek star William Shatner, are scheduled to board New Shepard for a trip to space. While a federal safety review might sound reassuring to these ticket holders, what does it actually mean in practice?
Probably not much.
Since 2004, federal law prohibits the FAA from promulgating any safety regulations to protect passengers and crew of commercial human spaceflight systems. Passengers fly at their risk, having signed away their right to sue except in narrow circumstances such as gross negligence or intentional harm. Commercial spaceflight participants are completely dependent upon the safety procedures and systems put in place by Blue Origin or its two U.S.-based competitors, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX.
The moratorium, also known as a learning period, was designed to allow companies to experiment with different designs and approaches without prescriptive federal regulations. The FAA can the restriction and begin formulating regulations if there is a serious accident or close call. The moratorium will expire in 2023 until Congress extends it as the body has done multiple times in the past.
The FAA’s authority over commercial human spaceflight systems is narrowly focused on protecting the uninvolved public, i.e., anyone not participating in some way in the flight. The FAA doesn’t wants debris raining down on an elementary school during recess, or damaging property not owned by the company conducting the launch.
There is almost no chance of that happening in Blue Origin’s case. The company launches from a sprawling facility located in a remote corner of rural west Texas that is miles from the closest town of Van Allen. New Shepard’s trajectory takes it straight up, with the entire flight conducted over land that Blue Origin owns.
Attendance at launches is by invitation only, and it usually involves individuals who have payloads flying on New Shepard. In July, media representatives were invited to watch as billionaire founder Jeff Bezos flew to space on New Shepard’s first commercial flight. As long as people watching the flight are kept a safe distance from the launch, there’s little the FAA can do.
Specific Concerns Raised
The open letter, authored by Blue Origin’s former head of employee communications Alexandra Abrams and endorsed by 20 current and former employees, painted a picture of a “toxic” culture where dissent is suppressed, resources are insufficient, and safety concerns ignored amid plans to ramp up New Shepard’s flight rate.
This suppression of dissent brings us to the matter of safety, which for many of us is the driving force for coming forward with this essay. At Blue Origin, a common question during high-level meetings was, “When will Elon [Musk] or [Richard] Branson fly?” Competing with other billionaires—and “making progress for Jeff”—seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule.
In 2020, company leaders demonstrated increasing impatience with New Shepard’s schedule of a few flights per year; their goal, routinely communicated to operations and maintenance staff, was to scale to more than 40. Some of us felt that with the resources and staff available, leadership’s race to launch at such a breakneck speed was seriously compromising flight safety. When Challenger exploded, the government’s investigation determined that the push to keep to a schedule of 24 flights per year “directly contributed to unsafe launch operations.” Of note: the Challenger report also cited internal stifling of differences of opinion as one of the organizational issues that led to the disaster and loss of life.
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. And no wonder—we have all seen how often teams are stretched beyond reasonable limits. In 2019, the team assigned to operate and maintain one of New Shepard’s subsystems included only a few engineers working long hours. Their responsibilities, in some of our opinions, went far beyond what would be manageable for a team double the size, ranging from investigating the root cause of failures to conducting regular preventative maintenance on the rocket’s systems.
Requests by managers and employees for additional engineers, staff, or spending were frequently denied, despite the fact that Blue Origin has one of the largest single sources of private funding on Earth. Employees are often told to “be careful with Jeff’s [Bezos] money,” to “not ask for more,” and to “be grateful.” In weekly meetings, we have seen Bezos and CEO [Bob] Smith frequently broaden the scope of existing projects, sometimes even adding more programs, but without authorizing the needed increase in budget or personnel.
We have seen a pattern of decision-making that often prioritizes execution speed and cost reduction over the appropriate resourcing to ensure quality. In 2018, when one team lead took over, the team had documented more than 1,000 problem reports related to the engines that power Blue Origin’s rockets, which had never been addressed.
The FAA has no authority to require Blue Origin to hire more people, spend additional money or pay more attention to employees’ concerns. Jeff Bezos’ company can fly as often as it likes as long as long as it doesn’t injure or kill anyone or damage third party property.
The main concern for Blue Origin is what the FAA might do if there is a serious accident or close call. The agency could begin formulating regulations at that point. It could also ground New Shepard until safety concerns are addressed. These issues have come up previously with Blue Origin’s main rival in the suborbital space sector, Virgin Galactic.
Protecting the Uninvolved Public
The need to keep the uninvolved public safe was illustrated in dramatic fashion when SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise broke up over the Mojave Desert during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014. Part of the cockpit containing the body of Scaled Composites co-pilot Mike Alsbury narrowly missed hitting the vehicles of two truck drivers on the ground. (Scaled built and was testing VSS Enterprise at the time; it had not yet turned the vehicle over to Virgin Galactic.)
The accident occurred after Alsbury prematurely unlocked a system designed to reconfigure VSS Enterprise for reentry during powered ascent. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the probable cause of the accident was contractor Scaled Composites failure to imagine that a pilot could make such a mistake and to implement appropriate safeguards and crew training to prevent it. The investigation also faulted the FAA for failing to address known deficiencies in Scaled’s analysis of pilot error and its potential consequences.
Although the incident killed Alsbury, seriously injured pilot Pete Siebold, destroyed the spaceship and was a close call for people on the ground, the FAA elected not to invoke its authority to formulate regulations at that time.
VSS Enterprise was dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve mothership over sparsely populated open desert. When flights of the second SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, began several years later, the vehicle was released over unpopulated mountains to the west of the previous drop zone. Testing was subsequently moved to Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The FAA did ground VSS Unity following a July 11 flight test with founder Richard Branson aboard during which the vehicle flew outside of its assigned airspace for 1 minute 41 seconds. The agency’s concern in this case was for the safety of other aircraft and people and property on the ground. The vehicle landed safety back at Spaceport America.
The FAA ordered the company to conduct an investigation with agency oversight into what caused VSS Unity to stray from its assigned trajectory, and why the company failed to notify the FAA about the airspace violation.
Virgin Galactic blamed upper-level winds for blowing VSS Unity off course and defended the actions of its pilots. The explanation was disputed by the company’s former director of flight test, Mark Stucky, who was fired eight days following the flight for unspecified reasons. He blamed the incident on the two pilots and said winds were within limits.
Virgin Galactic provided no explanation for its failure to notify the FAA about the airspace violation. Nor have officials answered questions about why the company, which is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, failed to disclose to shareholders that its only operational spacecraft was grounded by the FAA until the agency signed off on an investigation.
Virgin Galactic filed to sell $500 million worth of common stock to the public the day after the July 11 flight. Branson began selling $300 million worth of stock owned by himself and Virgin entities over three days beginning on Aug. 10 amid an on-going FAA investigation into the incident. The agency said that on the following day, Aug. 11, it informed Virgin Galactic that a mishap had occurred, grounded VSS Unity, and ordered the company to conduct an investigation with FAA oversight.
A spokesperson for Branson said he was as much in the dark as every other shareholder about the mishap during the flight he was on, the ground of VSS Unity, and the FAA and company-led investigations when he sold the stock. Branson owns 18 percent of Virgin Galactic.
The FAA announced earlier this week that it had closed the investigation into the mishap and cleared VSS Unity to resume flights. Virgin Galactic said it would implement new measures to increase the airspace allocated for SpaceShipTwo flights and to improve communications with the agency.
Virgin Galactic has previously said it plans to fly three Italian researchers on a flight test in mid-October. The company will then put VSS Unity and VMS Eve in the hangar for about eight months of modifications and upgrades. Virgin Galactic plans to complete one more flight test next summer before beginning commercial suborbital tourism flights in the late third quarter of 2022.