Former Blue Origin rocket engine manager alleges wrongful termination for whistleblowing on safety

Blue Origin Jeff Bezos BE-4

The former program manager of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines has filed a lawsuit against the company alleging whistleblower retaliation after he spoke up about safety issues.

The complaint was filed on Monday in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. It includes a detailed narrative about program manager Craig Stoker’s efforts over seven months to escalate his concerns about safety and a hostile work environment at Blue Origin.

Allegedly, Stoker told two VPs in May 2022 that then-CEO Bob Smith’s behavior caused employees “to frequently violate safety procedures and processes in order to meet unreasonable deadlines.” Smith would “explode” when issues would arise, generating a hostile work environment, the complaint says. Stoker sent a follow-up email to the two VPs — Linda Cova, VP of the engines business unit, and Mary Plunkett, senior VP of human resources — that included a formal complaint against Smith.

“Myself, my leadership team and others throughout the company should not have to constantly apologize and make excuses to ourselves and our teams for the CEO’s bad behavior,” the email states. “We spend significant time smoothing things over, building back morale, repairing damage, stopping people from overreacting. . . . The hostile work environment . . . is creating a safety and quality hazard for our people, products and customers.”

TechCrunch contacted Blue Origin for comment and will update the story if they respond.

When Stoker inquired into a separate investigation into Smith’s behavior, Plunkett told him that it had been closed and Smith was receiving “coaching.”

Stoker learned that a fellow employee had nearly asphyxiated while working under an engine nozzle just a few months after formally filing his complaint. He brought the concerns to Michael Stevens, VP of safety and mission assurance; the complaint says that Stoker was “brushed off.” In August, Stoker sent another email to leadership raising concerns that nine people on the engine team were working “24+” hour shifts to ensure the engine was delivered to customer United Launch Alliance on time.

No doubt the company was feeling the pressure to make deliveries; Blue Origin’s BE-4 will power United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan launch vehicle, which is now expected to make its much-delayed debut around Christmas. According to the complaint, Blue Origin’s contract with ULA requires the company to communicate issues that could impact rocket engine delivery one year in advance; Stoker wanted to tell ULA the engines would likely be delayed.

But Smith had allegedly instructed Stoker not to share these production and delivery issues with ULA.

Ultimately, after an internal investigation, Blue Origin HR concluded that Smith did not create a hostile work environment, nor violate any company policies. Stoker objected to this conclusion; the complaint says that Stoker later learned that no one from the engine program was interviewed as part of the investigation.

The lawsuit alleges that HR's reluctance to conduct the investigation was because the complainant — Stoker — was male: “As a male, they expected him to deal with his problems on his own and ‘whine’ less — leaving Stoker with no recourse nor resource to raise his concerns against the company’s most powerful officer.”

Stoker was terminated on October 7, seven months after he raised his first safety concern. The complaint is clear about who was behind this decision: "Smith spearheaded this termination due to Stoker’s complaints against him, his raising of safety / ethical / legal issues, and the fact that many of these reports aimed to hamper his production / delivery schedule."

Blue Origin announced that Bob Smith was stepping down from his role as CEO in September, after a nearly six-year tenure. His tenure was marked by success, including growing the team from less than 1,000 people to over 12,000 and landing a number of high-profile, high-value contracts with NASA. But it was not without serious controversy, including allegations of a culture of sexism among senior executives.

Read the full complaint here.