The billionaire space race is just a name race. In reality, there is SpaceX – and everyone.
Only the company founded by Elon Musk almost two decades ago sent an orbital rocket thruster into space and landed it safely again. Only SpaceX landed a rocket the size of a 15-story building on a drone in the middle of the ocean. Only SpaceX transported both NASA astronauts and private citizens to the International Space Station. Only SpaceX produces thousands of its own table-sized communications satellites each year. Only SpaceX has the near-weekly launch rate needed to single-handedly double the number of operational satellites in orbit in less than two years. Only SpaceX is launching prototypes of the largest and most powerful rocket ever made, a monster called the Starship which is intended to transport humans to the moon.
SpaceX’s total dominance of the rocket industry is not what you would expect.
There are more innovations in the commercial space industry today than at any time in history, and the launch services industry is particularly competitive. Relativity Space is building the world’s first 3D printed rocket and plans to build rockets on Mars with robots. Virgin Orbit puts satellites into orbit by launching a rocket under the wing of a jumbo jet. Its sister company, Virgin Galactic, transports people to the edge of space from an air-launched space plane. RocketLab developed the first rocket motor powered by an electric pump and attempts to catch it in the air with a net attached to a helicopter.
And then there’s Blue Origin, which has dominated the global headlines for days this week with its launch from Star Trek actor William Shatner – briefly – into space.
If there was one rocket company that should be at a level of technological achievement comparable to SpaceX, it is Blue Origin. The company was founded by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2000, just two years before SpaceX moved to California. In 2015, Blue Origin became the first company to send a rocket over the Kármán Line, the internationally recognized space frontier, and land it again. Although not as difficult as bringing a rocket back from orbit – as Musk did mocked Bezos in the past – it was still a major milestone in the history of private space exploration. And unlike Musk, Bezos knows what it’s like to get on his own rocket.
Bezos founded Blue Origin with visionary goals. Inspired by the late Princeton futurist Gerard K O’Neill, Bezos dreams of moving heavy industry from Earth to space to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He wants to lay the foundation for an alien economy where thousands of people live and work in space. His company is building a rocket as powerful as the one that carried Apollo’s astronauts to the moon and has partnered with leading defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, to develop a lunar lander that could bring humans back to the lunar surface. It designed and built one of the most powerful rocket engines ever made and signed contracts with the United Launch Alliance to supply the engine for its next-generation Vulcan rocket.
There is no doubt that Bezos has a lot of vision. The question is: why can’t the second richest man in the world execute him?
Over the past few years, Blue Origin’s blueprint has started to unravel. Earlier this year, NASA awarded its lunar lander contract to SpaceX, leaving Blue Origin in deep trouble. He is now suing the US government to reconsider the price. There was an exodus of the best engineering talent following the loss of the contract, which only exacerbated its already considerable delays. Blue Origin has struggled to reach its production rate by producing its powerful BE-4 rocket engine and as a result the inaugural launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket has been postponed until the end of 2022. This will make the first theft of the engine a full five years late.
Meanwhile, the first flight of the company’s legendary New Glenn rocket, a heavy launcher capable of hoisting nearly 100,000 pounds into low-earth orbit, has also been postponed until the end of 2022 at the earliest. It was originally intended to fly for the first time last year. Bezos didn’t even have the glory of being the first billionaire to mount his own rocket into space. Just two weeks before Bezos flew to the edge of space this summer, Richard Branson made a suborbital flight in his own space plane with Virgin Galactic.
How did it happen? Blue Origin employs thousands of the world’s best rocket engineers. The company also has access to a virtually unlimited amount of money. Bezos, who is worth just south of $ 200 billion, spends $ 1 billion a year out of his own pocket to fund Blue Origin. In all respects, Blue Origin is expected to be one of the most successful space companies in the world.
“Blue Origin has all the makings to be successful and become something really fantastic,” said Ally Abrams, the former employee communications manager at Blue Origin who recently wrote a whistleblower essay detailing the security concerns and the generalized sexism in the company. “The engineers really believed in it and they try to make it a reality every day despite management intervention. “
According to Abrams, Blue Origin’s problems have both a technical and a cultural dimension. On a technical level, Abrams said the company suffers from an immense amount of technical debt engineering issues that pile up due to choosing a quick fix rather than the best solution – and a relentless focus on speed that has undermined his ability to process properly. problems with its launchers. She explained the exodus of the best talent from Blue Origin as engineers who “were fed up with putting band-aids on problems.”
“Technical debt is a problem that most companies face, but at Blue it’s just on an incredible scale,” said Abrams. “It really failed to move from an R&D company to a production company.”
Abrams attributes the growing technical debt in part to Blue Origin’s growing focus on speed, an irony for a company whose motto is Gradatim Ferociter, the Latin translation of “step by step, ferociously”. She traces the growing pressure to move quickly to 2017, when it was clear the company was failing to keep pace with its SpaceX rivals. She said Bezos’ growing impatience with the pace of development was palpable, as was the “jealousy he seemed to have for other billionaires who seemed to be making more progress than he was.”
“The schedule has always been a huge joke within the company,” said Abrams. “We were posting the dates outside and the employees were laughing because they knew it just wasn’t possible. “
But Blue Origin was rocked by more than just engineering difficulties.
In his essay, Abrams described a business where leaders exhibit “consistently inappropriate” behavior towards women and “dissent is actively suppressed.” According to Abrams, Blue Origin’s cultural issues started at the top and spread throughout the company. She said Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith, who was chosen by Bezos to lead the company in 2017, has repeatedly failed to listen to his employees’ concerns about the safety of the company’s vehicles and its toxic work culture.
“Bob Smith is one of the most incompetent leaders I have ever met,” said Abrams. “Passion withers in his presence. Many engineers did not feel comfortable raising safety and quality issues for fear of retaliation, which is very frightening when working on a high risk experimental vehicle.
Abrams’ whistleblower essay was co-signed by 20 anonymous current and former Blue Origin employees. Many of his claims have been denied by the company.
A Blue Origin statement said the company fired Abrams for “repeated warnings about issues with federal export control regulations”, that the company has no tolerance for harassment or discrimination, and that the company has no tolerance for harassment or discrimination. she believes her New Shepard rocket is “the safest space vehicle ever.” designed or built ”.
“It’s especially difficult and painful, for me, to hear complaints that attempt to characterize our entire team in a way that doesn’t match the character and abilities I see at Blue Origin every day,” Smith wrote. in an internal email to Blue Origin employees earlier this month. “As always, I welcome and encourage any member of Team Blue to speak to me directly if they have any concerns on any topic at any time.”
Yet Blue Origin employees continue to speak out. Earlier this week, a Washington Post investigation echoed the concerns Abrams raised and painted a picture of an organization riddled with mistrust of its leadership, sexism and insufficient concern for the safety of its launchers.
Going forward, the question for Blue Origin is whether it can reshuffle its culture to fulfill its mission. Many observers, including Abrams, are skeptical. But maybe a change is imminent. Earlier this year, Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon and pledged to devote more time to Blue Origin. It remains to be seen whether Bezos can reinvigorate the company’s culture with his grand vision of human space exploration and a sense of common purpose.
“There’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of healing to be done if they can actually put together a good leadership team that is committed to moving forward in a different way,” said Abrams. “I think it would take years for the scar tissue to heal with the employees.”
The only thing that’s certain is that Bezos will never have his colonies in space if he can’t build the rockets to make it happen – and that can be a problem that no amount of money can. to resolve.