FAA Says Lack of Federal Whistleblower Protections Is ‘Enormous Factor’ Hindering Blue Origin Safety Review

Jackie Wattles writes via CNN Business: Jeff Bezos' rocket company, Blue Origin, became the subject of a federal review this fall after a group of 21 current and former employees co-signed an essay that raised serious questions about the safety of the company's rockets -- including the rocket making headlines for flying Bezos and other celebrities to space. But that review was hamstrung by a lack of legal protections for whistleblowers in the commercial spaceflight industry, according to emails from Federal Aviation Administration investigators that were obtained by CNN Business. The FAA also confirmed in a statement Friday that its Blue Origin review is now closed, saying the "FAA investigated the safety allegations made against Blue Origin's human spaceflight program" and "found no specific safety issues." The emails obtained by CNN Business, however, reveal that investigators were not able to speak with any of the engineers who signed the letter anonymously. Investigators also were not able to go to Blue Origin and ask for documents or interviews with current employees or management, according to the FAA. The situation highlights how commercial spaceflight companies like Blue Origin are operating in a regulatory bubble, insulated from much of the scrutiny other industries are put under. There are no federal whistleblower statues that would protect employees in the commercial space industry if they aid FAA investigators, according to the agency. The commercial space industry is in a legally designated "learning period" until at least October 2023 -- a "learning period" that has been extended several times, most recently by a 2015 law called the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. The idea is to allow the industry to mature and give companies a chance to self-regulate without overbearing government interference. But that designation effectively bars federal regulators from implementing certain new rules or wielding the same oversight powers for commercial space companies as it does for aviation. That meant that investigators had to rely on current and former Blue Origin employees voluntarily coming forward to offer information.

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