In midst of pandemic, Blue Origin mulls tourist-rocket test launch

VAN HORN — It’s been a rollercoaster of a week for Blue Origin, the space exploration company owned by billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

As coronavirus prompts lockdowns across the country, tech news site The Verge reported last week that the company planned to continue a possible launch of its New Shepard tourist rocket originally scheduled for April 10. The news prompted controversy, as it could have seen an unknown number of employees travel from the company’s headquarters near Seattle to a launch site in Van Horn.

The Seattle area is a hotspot for coronavirus. The area saw a major outbreak at a nursing home in February and reported the United States’ first death on February 28. There are over 3,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and over 200 deaths in Seattle’s King County, according to coronavirus tracking done by Johns Hopkins University.

Van Horn and Culberson County, meanwhile, have no known cases of coronavirus. Like much of the Big Bend region, they’re short on financial and medical resources. The Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine has just 25 beds and two ventilators. Culberson Hospital in Van Horn did not respond by press time to questions about its own ventilator and ICU capacity.

While hotels, bars and other businesses across the Big Bend have been ordered closed in response to coronavirus, a Blue Origin trip is possible because the Department of Homeland Security has classified Blue Origin as an “essential” business.

When pressed on the designation, a DHS spokesperson referred The Big Bend Sentinel to a DHS advisory from March 28, identifying “essential critical infrastructure workers during [the] COVID-19 response.” The guidelines describe “transportation and logistics” workers as essential, which could apply to Blue Origin.

But the guidelines also say that “individual jurisdictions should add or subtract essential workforce categories based on their own requirements and discretion.” Officials in Van Horn and Culberson County, both of which are under shelter-in-place orders, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

In an emailed statement to The Big Bend Sentinel, Blue Origin said it had “mission essential designation” and had “been cleared by federal, state and local officials to continue to operate.”

“We are doing everything we can to safeguard our workforce and communities,” the statement read. “We have been teleworking for several weeks, conducting deep cleaning, eliminating non-essential visits, minimizing travel, and practicing social distancing.”

According to The Verge’s reporting, discussions of a Blue Origin trip to Van Horn came up during a company meeting last week, where the company reportedly suggested employees “should keep a low profile” while visiting town. It also reportedly threatened “employment repercussions” for workers who refused to go.

The news prompted outrage from employees — four of whom spoke anonymously to The Verge for fear of retaliation. One said they felt Blue Origin was “prioritizing its business goals and schedule above the safety of its employees and the community,” while another said they did not think a New Shepard test launch was “essential to the United States in any way.” New Shepard is a craft for “suborbital space tourism,” according to the company’s website.

In an initial statement to The Big Bend Sentinel, Blue Origin declined to comment on details of The Verge’s reporting, noting that the company doesn’t “comment on internal meetings.”

Still, a spokesperson said Blue Origin has an “open and constructive culture where we solicit inputs from every member on the team” and stressed the company was “continuing to monitor this rapidly evolving situation” and has no “specific date set for the New Shepard launch.”

“For over a decade, Van Horn has welcomed us into their community, and has made the Blue Origin team feel at home,” the spokesperson said. “As our employees’ health is paramount, so is the safety of the community of Van Horn.”

When pressed further on whether Blue Origin employees would be traveling from Washington to a remote part of Texas, the company on Monday afternoon told The Big Bend Sentinel and other outlets that while the company’s Van Horn operations will remain open, the company has “no plans for travel to Van Horn.”

Also on Monday afternoon, The Verge published another Blue Origin story: three Blue Origin employees in Washington have tested positive for coronavirus.