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The space industry has a big, ugly sexual harassment problem

A Blue Origin launch to space. In 2021, Blue Origin employees came forward with public allegations of harassment at the company.
A Blue Origin launch to space. In 2021, Blue Origin employees came forward with public allegations of harassment at the company. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

Humanity is making a giant leap back to the moon and to Mars. But one giant obstacle continues to plague the humans making this progress possible: sexual harassment.

Sexual and gender-based harassment is an enduring and systemic issue across industries, professions and communities around the world. But in 2021, the space industry, in particular, was brought into the spotlight as continued reports of harassment were made public.

This past year, the space industry grew tremendously. From companies like Blue Origin launching their first crewed missions to new and thriving commercial partnerships on and off Earth, 2021 was a landmark year for many in the sector. However, alongside this fast success, the industry's persistent issues of sexual harassment have been made very publicly apparent. 

While the industry flourishes, its workers are grappling with unsafe working environments, as reports continue to show. In 2021 alone, and in just a couple of examples, former SpaceX employees as well as a group of current and former Blue Origin employees publicly shared allegations of sexual harassment. With these companies being among the foremost leaders in the industry, these allegations raise questions about the treatment of the people working across the sector, sparking mainstream conversation about the need for change. 

Related: Nonbinary astronomers need better support from their field, study finds

With the rise of the "Me Too" movement in 2017, sexual harassment became a topic of mainstream conversation; the insidious issue was no longer relegated to whispers and hushed conversations. While sexual harassment is nothing new in any industry, this past year's allegations in the space industry have raised some serious concerns. 

"The space industry hasn't come to grips with how endemic this problem is," Luc Riesbeck, a policy research analyst at a commercial space start-up, told Space.com. "My impression is that if you asked senior-level leadership within the majority of aerospace companies if their organization has a problem with sexual harassment and assault, they would say no."

"I reject the idea that this is a difficult situation to understand, or that people in leadership positions to effect change aren't capable of sourcing the expertise to institute meaningful reform," Riesbeck added. But "whether they understand or not doesn't really matter, at this moment, because the end result is still the same, and that's that actions being taken. People are being hurt and nothing is being done to change the conditions that people are being hurt in." 

Public allegations

In September of 2021, a report in the New York Times revealed a slew of harassment allegations by employees at Blue Origin. A group of 21 employees and former employees published an open essay that, among other things, details a sexist work culture rife with demeaning and inappropriate behavior towards women and ongoing reports of sexual harassment by senior leaders at the company. 

These allegations came just a couple months after the company launched its first crewed mission, a suborbital flight with billionaire founder Jeff Bezos on board, in July. This mission was soon followed by Blue Origin's second suborbital trip with "Star Trek" actor William Shatner in October and a third flight carrying former NFL football player Michael Strahan and the company's first full six-passenger crew in December.

In addition to reports of harassment and misconduct, the essay explains how the work culture at the company that pushed its workers to make these flights happen "has also taken a toll on the mental health of many of the people who make Blue Origin's operations possible." The essay references direction from leadership to essentially push themselves to the point of burnout for the "privilege to be a part of history." 

The authors also noted significant concern about the rapid pace of progress and the safety of Blue Origin's New Shepard vehicle, the reusable rocket-capsule combo that the company uses for its space tourism flights. Such a culture, the authors argue, not only discouraged employees from expressing safety concerns but also fueled sexual harassment and mistreatment.

But Blue Origin isn't the only space company that had sexual harassment allegations brought into the limelight this past year. 

In December, a group of former SpaceX employees came forward with allegations of sexual harassment at Elon Musk's spaceflight company in a public essay on the website Lioness published by former employee Ashley Kosak. 

Related: Space has a diversity problem — and big institutions can do something about it

The essay details alleged "countless" instances of unwanted sexual advances, being inappropriately touched by numerous colleagues without consent and more. Additional reporting by The Verge included more accounts of misconduct from people who have worked at SpaceX, including allegations of either experiencing or witnessing women and nonbinary people being harassed. 

The additional accounts from The Verge also mention that SpaceX's human resource department was made aware of the harassment allegations "and had inconsistent responses that the employees felt were inadequate," The Verge said.

"I reported each incident of sexual harassment I experienced to HR, and nothing was done," Kosak said in the essay.

These allegations and the reported lack of support for victims point to a major component of the space industry's ongoing problems with sexual harassment. Not only is sexual harassment happening across the space industry, but the systems in place aren't adequately protecting people as allegations arise. 

The aforementioned allegations came from employees at two of the largest space companies in the industry, but it is important to note that sexual harassment is neither a new issue nor is it relegated only to industry giants or these specific companies — and it's certainly not a problem that's contained to the space industry alone. 

Despite feeling "disappointment and frustration," Riesbeck said, "I have to say though, I didn't feel surprise that I saw expressed by many in the public. I was impressed by the whistleblowers' bravery in coming forward publicly, and grateful for it, because I understand the enormity of the emotional and mental burden that goes into making a decision like that."

However, Riesbeck emphasized, "sexual and gender-based harassment and assault has gone under-addressed in every industry; the space industry is no different. For all the lip service paid to public empowerment campaigns for survivors like #MeToo, there’s still very little in the way of formally coordinated, trauma-informed standards for handling interpersonal violence and harassment in the workplace that center the needs of survivors, especially for survivors of color and especially when those survivors are temporary or part-time workers like interns."

"I felt weary as I watched much of the news cycles around the two stories follow the same patterns I've seen elsewhere in and outside of STEM-related industries, namely, fixating on the perpetrators in question and a failure to even consider, let alone work to address, the needs of the survivors who were actually harmed and the conditions that enabled that harm to take place," Riesbeck said.

And, while anecdotal evidence isn't necessary to "prove" the validity of this problem in and out of this industry, many different individuals who have worked in the space industry have reached out to Space.com and have shared stories of sexual harassment and mistreatment. 

As engineer Payton Barnwell told Space.com, often, sexual harassment in this industry happens "under the guise of an professional opportunity. Those are really tough. I've had experiences that have happened in private, at work events or post-work employee gatherings, and even publicly at trade shows or conferences. I will always be surprised at how comfortable people are with harassment the harassers and bystanders that know you."

"Companies, agencies, and organizations talk a big game, but I've experienced first hand what can happen when policies or standards aren't adopted by all attendees.  groups of all kinds need to have the hard conversations and have the right employees on the team to make sure everyone is truly welcome and protected," Barnwell added.

Additionally, as a space journalist and as a woman working in this field, I have experienced sexual harassment firsthand. A particular personal experience of mine was also made public this past year, an experience which, amidst ongoing claims of sexual harassment across the industry, was part of the inspiration to create the online support group called "Astro Advocates & Allies," according to group co-founder Heather Morehouse. I am a member of the group, but not a founder. 

The group is a private Facebook group for people of all genders facing sexual harassment in the space industry. Morehouse started the group alongside mechanical engineer Caleigh MacPherson, who has worked throughout the space industry, and space scientist and educator Victoria Varone.

The industry's response

While these two companies are not alone in needing to address issues surrounding harassment, Blue Origin and SpaceX have been in the spotlight this past year because they are such major players in the industry and because of the now-public allegations. And, while it has been limited, after these allegations the companies made statements about harassment.

"Blue Origin has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind. We provide numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct," a Blue Origin spokesperson told Space.com in response to the allegations of harassment at the company. 

Space.com reached out to SpaceX for comment but did not receive a response. However, as the Verge reported, after Lioness published Kosak's essay, SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell sent out an email to all SpaceX employees. The email "reminded" them of SpaceX's "no A-hole" policy and that harassment is not tolerated and should be reported, the Verge noted.

"Timely reporting of harassment is key to our maintaining SpaceX as a great place to work; we can’t fix what we don’t know," Shotwell wrote in the email, according to the Verge. "If you are aware of, or experience any acts of harassment or discrimination, report it to your manager or any HR representative."

In the email, Shotwell also states that the company will be examining its HR practices. "We also know we can always do better," Shotwell wrote. "That is why HR has been soliciting feedback from groups across the company to ensure the process is effective. HR will also conduct an internal audit, followed by a third-party audit."

However, with this response, which is a common response to claims of harassment, it is important to remember the limits of HR. As many, like the BBC, have reported over the years, at many companies HR's primary objective is to protect the company from scrutiny rather than to protect the individual employees from harm. 

While these two companies and commercial spaceflight are at the forefront of this conversation right now, in discussing major aspects of the space industry, you cannot forget to include NASA in the conversation. Space.com recently spoke with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and asked about the agency's response to recent allegations of sexual harassment in the industry.

Nelson's response was brief but firm: "If you're asking what NASA's policy on sexual harassment is, it's absolute zero tolerance," he said.

However, while NASA's policy remains steadfast, it doesn't mean that harassment couldn't or doesn't still happen at the agency. From 2015-2019, for instance, the agency received three complaints of sexual harassment, according to a preliminary analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. 

It is especially pertinent that the agency address its policies and support systems surrounding sexual harassment as the agency works with a variety of commercial partners that might not have the same policies in place. 

As an example, NASA works closely with SpaceX under its commercial crew program and has contracted SpaceX to build the agency's lunar lander as part of its Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface. 

So employees from both SpaceX and NASA continue to work together, with both organizations holding different sexual harassment policies 

Creating a toxic environment

Sexual harassment certainly isn't an issue unique to the space industry. But what is it about the industry that has created an environment where sexual harassment has continued to survive?

The space sector has slowly become more diverse over the years, but it continues to be dominated by white, cisgender men. A 2021 United Nations report showed that only about one in five space industry workers are women (this does not account for the industry's nonbinary workers). And, while NASA's statistics don't represent every space industry company or organization, the agency's most recent workforce data shows that 72% of its workers are white. 

While sexual harassment is sometimes perpetrated by women and against men, sexual harassment primarily affects women and people in gender minority groups, and disproportionately affects people of color, disabled people and people in the LGBTQ+ community, according to the national organization for women. So in this industry, there remains an imbalance in representation and power.

But the demographics of the industry didn't create this environment alone. As the essays from the Blue Origin and SpaceX employees shared, there is a common theme of a toxic workplace culture across the industry.

"This is an industry where you have people like Elon Musk, who are pushing, pushing, pushing for new advancements, and a lot of the time you lose the human aspect along the way," MacPherson told Space.com. "You're trying to literally change the world, which is a great goal. But at what expense?"

Kosak echoed this sentiment in detail in her essay. "Elon makes promises he doesn’t hold himself accountable to, shifts the goalpost constantly, unnecessarily strips resources from people who are working themselves to the brink of burnout, and then sends threatening messages to remind them that their efforts will never be adequate," Kosak wrote in the essay.

"These conditions would be disturbing anywhere, but in this particular workplace, we are blazing a trail to settle a new planet. What will life on Elon’s Mars be like? Probably much like life at SpaceX. Elon uses engineers as a resource to be mined rather than a team to be led. The health of Earth is rarely a consideration in the company’s projects. Misogyny is rampant," Kosak added in the essay.

"Most of the reporting I've seen around this issue assumes that toxic workplace cultures where sexual and gender-based harassment is common is essentially an unintended side-effect perpetuated by otherwise well-intentioned people, and that it’s just a lack of understanding or laziness that turns those good intentions into interpersonal violence," Riesbeck added. "That is definitely worth addressing, but feigning ignorance is also a process that genuine abusers readily take advantage of as an avenue to facilitate their abuse. Both of these recent stories recalled repeated incidents of harassment that went unaddressed or dismissed. When that happens, organizations can't claim to not understand the problem."

It is no secret that space companies like those mentioned above are pushing extremely hard to achieve ambitious goals on even more ambitious timelines. As is discussed in the essays detailing the harassment allegations, the seemingly impossible timelines that these companies set can risk the safety of space vehicles, missions, their passengers and the people working on the ground to make it all happen. 

Doing the impossible impossibly fast shouldn't necessitate cutting corners when it comes to a safe workplace. But, as these concerns over toxic industry workplaces imply, it is possible that in these environments, the focus on fast success leads to sexual harassment going unchecked or allegations being swept under the rug so as not to disrupt the workflow. 

There are now dozens of space companies of varying sizes and capacities, so a "space company workplace" isn't identical across the board. But to decrease the risk of sexual harassment in this industry, these companies need to take a hard look what what might be being sacrificed for rapid accomplishment.

What can be done?

These allegations of sexual harassment in the space industry are sparking serious concern, but with a new year just begun it also raises the question of how things can and should change. 

Now, the discussion of sexual harassment in the industry is certainly not new, MacPherson noted, "but it was it was hush hush, it was never public." But this past year brought the conversation into the mainstream. It's possible that coverage by major news outlets will embolden others to come forward publicly about their own experiences.

But even with what is publicly known already, space companies are certainly able to take this wave of allegations as an opportunity to reevaluate their policies surrounding sexual harassment.

"I'm encouraged to see dedicated platforms for whistleblowers like Lioness emerge, and hope to see similar spaces develop," Riesbeck said. "But in terms of dedicated action within space organizations, I can't say I'm holding my breath, unfortunately. The industry on its face is still reinforcing silence, whether they realize it or not. Survivors know that if they come forward with their stories, no meaningful change will be implemented as a result, and every available action will be taken to rehabilitate the images of the people who harmed them and clear the organizations they were harassed in of any responsibility."

"From my perspective, even processes for meeting legal bare minimums under Title IX are almost always implemented by organizations in such a way that result in years-long ordeals for survivors, requiring them to constantly rehash their victimization, defend themselves in isolation, often in closed-door private mediations without legal representation like what occurred in both of these recent incidents, and track down their own resources for recovery, all at their own significant expense," Riesbeck said, adding that "formal training for employees of what to do if they're assaulted at work are rarely included in onboarding orientations, if at all. It's not just that survivors aren't given what they need to heal, they're run through the wringer and punished if they choose [to] follow the stated process for reporting the truth." 

"The only meaningful support available to survivors is found outside in community with other survivors and at their own expense," Riesbeck added.

Everything from protocols on how to respond to reports of harassment, to general workplace culture, could improve to ensure that innovation doesn't happen at the expense of the humans behind it. 

Morehouse suggested that companies need to be much faster when it comes to responding to allegations and take more serious action with repeat offenders. "Many cases sit for years," Morehouse said. "Zero tolerance is great, but leading from the front would go a long way. And many of these people need to just go, when they are found to have multiple infractions, and stop being supported by people in the industry."

She added that companies should have outside help with investigations into harassment, as often internal human resource officers or managers can be partial to side with what's best for the company over the individual. "There needs to be an unbiased group of people who can look at these cases and see the bigger picture, move through the information," Morehouse said.

Bailey Burns, an aerospace systems engineer at Paragon Space, an Arizona-based company that designs, builds and tests environmental controls like life-support systems for astronauts, also sees the need for space companies to take a serious look at the mistakes they might've made and what they can do moving forward.

"I also think companies are in this weird phase where they are scared to admit mistakes so they avoid the situations instead of confronting them head on and [making] changes. I hope we do see more companies take legitimate and strong actions and I hope we, as an industry, can support the companies that do decide to step up. Working for a company that does address these things, I know what a difference it makes and it should be rewarded as the future we want to see in space. To the companies, we are actually watching," Burns told Space.com.

These are just some ideas from a few individuals in the industry, but their hope is that the allegations that came to light in 2021 spark a bigger conversation and action.

"I'm hoping that a lot of these companies are going to take note of these big articles and allegations that have come out," MacPherson said.

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.