The billionaire space race is only a race by name. In actuality, there is SpaceX – and everyone else.
Only the company founded by Elon Musk nearly two decades ago has sent a rocket booster into orbit and landed it safely again. Only SpaceX has landed a rocket the size of a 15-storey building on a drone ship in the middle of the ocean. Only SpaceX has carried both Nasa astronauts and private citizens to the International Space Station. Only SpaceX is producing thousands of its own table-sized communication satellites every year. Only SpaceX has the almost weekly launch cadence necessary 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 behemoth called Starship that is destined to carry humans to the moon.
SpaceX’s total dominance of the rocket industry is not what you would expect.
There is more innovation happening in the commercial space sector today than at any time in history and the launch services sector 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 is putting satellites into orbit by launching a rocket from beneath the wing of a jumbo jet. Its sister company, Virgin Galactic, is flying people to the edge of space from an air-launched space plane. RocketLab has developed the first rocket engine fed with an electric pump and is trying to catch it out of the air with a net connected to a helicopter.
And then there’s Blue Origin, which dominated world headlines for days this week with its launch of the Star Trek actor William Shatner – briefly – into space.
If there were any rocket company expected to be at a comparable level of technological achievement to SpaceX, it is Blue Origin. The company was founded by the former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2000, just two years before SpaceX set up shop in California. In 2015, Blue Origin became the first company to send a rocket above the Kármán Line, the internationally recognized boundary of space, and land it again. While this is not as challenging as bringing a rocket back from orbit – as Musk has taunted Bezos in the past – it was still a major milestone in the history of private space exploration. And unlike Musk, Bezos actually knows what it’s like to ride 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 off of Earth and into space to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He wants to lay the foundation for an extra-terrestrial economy where thousands of people are living and working in space. His company is building a rocket as powerful as the one that carried Apollo 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 has designed and built one of the most powerful rocket engines ever made and inked contracts with the United Launch Alliance to supply the engine for its next generation Vulcan rocket.
There’s no doubt that Bezos has plenty of vision. The question is: why can’t the second richest man in the world execute on it?
Over the past few years, Blue Origin’s master plan has begun unraveling. Earlier this year, Nasa awarded its lunar lander contract to SpaceX, leaving Blue Origin in the lurch. It’s now suing the US government to reconsider the award. It’s seen an exodus of top engineering talent following the lost contract, which has only exacerbated its already considerable delays. Blue Origin has struggled to hit its stride producing its powerful BE-4 rocket engine and as a result the maiden launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket has slipped to late 2022. This will make the first flight of the engine a full five years behind schedule.
Meanwhile, the first flight of the company’s fabled New Glenn rocket, a heavy launch vehicle capable of hoisting nearly 100,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, has also been pushed to late 2022 at the earliest. It was originally meant to fly for the first time last year. Bezos didn’t even get the glory of being the first billionaire to ride his own rocket into space. Just two weeks before Bezos flew to the edge of space this summer, Richard Branson completed a suborbital flight in his own spaceplane with Virgin Galactic.
How did this happen? Blue Origin employs thousands of the world’s top rocket engineers. The company also has access to a virtually unlimited supply of money. Bezos, who is worth just south of $200bn, spends $1bn a year out of his own pocket to fund Blue Origin. By all measures, Blue Origin should be one of the most successful space companies in the world.
“Blue Origin has all the ingredients for success and to become something truly fantastic,” said Ally Abrams, the former head of Blue Origin employee communications who recently wrote a whistleblower essay detailing safety concerns and rampant sexism at the company. “The engineers really believed that and they try every day to make that a reality despite the leadership’s interventions.”
According to Abrams, Blue Origin’s troubles have both a technical and cultural dimension. On the technical side, Abrams said the company suffers from an immense amount of technical debt–engineering challenges that build up as a result of choosing a quick solution rather than the best solution – and a relentless focus on speed that undermined its ability to properly address problems with its launch vehicles. She explained the exodus of top talent from Blue Origin as engineers who “got tired of putting Band-Aids on problems”.
“Technical debt is a problem most companies have but at Blue it’s just on an incredible scale,” Abrams said. “It really failed to transition from an R&D company to a production company.”
Abrams partially attributes the mounting technical debt to Blue Origin’s increasing focus on speed, an irony for a company whose motto is Gradatim Ferociter, the Latin rendering of “step by step, ferociously”. She traces the mounting pressure to move fast to 2017, when it was clear the company was failing to keep pace with its rivals at SpaceX. She said Bezos’s growing impatience with the pace of development was palpable, as was the “jealousy he seemed to have for the other billionaires who seemed to be making more progress than him”.
“The schedule was always a huge joke within the company,” Abrams said. “We’d put out the dates externally and employees would laugh because they knew that just wasn’t possible.”
But Blue Origin was racked by more than just engineering difficulties.
In her essay, Abrams described a company where executives show “consistently inappropriate” behavior toward women and where “dissent is actively stifled”. According to Abrams, Blue Origin’s cultural problems started at the top and flowed down throughout the company. She said Blue Origin’s CEO, Bob Smith, who was tapped by Bezos to lead the company in 2017, repeatedly failed to listen to his employees’ concerns about the safety of the company’s vehicles and its toxic workplace culture.
“Bob Smith is one of the most incapable leaders I have ever encountered,” Abrams said. “Passion withers in his presence. Plenty of engineers didn’t feel comfortable raising safety and quality concerns for fear of retaliation, which is a very scary thing when you’re working on a high-risk, experimental vehicle.”
Abrams’ whistleblower essay was co-signed by 20 anonymous current and former Blue Origin employees. Many of its allegations were denied by the company.
A statement from Blue Origin said the company had dismissed Abrams for “repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations”, that the company has no tolerance for harassment or discrimination, and that it believes its New Shepard rocket is “the safest space vehicle ever designed or built”.
“It is particularly difficult and painful, for me, to hear claims being levied that attempt to characterize our entire team in a way that doesn’t align with the character and capability that 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 directly with me if they have any concerns on any topic at any time.”
Still, Blue Origin employees continue to speak out. Earlier this week, an investigation by the Washington Post echoed the issues raised by Abrams and painted a picture of an organization riddled with distrust of its leadership, sexism and insufficient concern for the safety of its launch vehicles.
Looking to the future, the question for Blue Origin is whether it can overhaul its culture to deliver on its mission. Many observers, including Abrams, are skeptical. But perhaps a change is imminent. Earlier this year, Bezos stepped down from his role as the CEO of Amazon and committed himself to spending more time focused on Blue Origin. Whether Bezos can reinvigorate the company’s culture with his grand vision for human space exploration and a sense of common purpose remains to be seen.
“There’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of healing to do if they can actually put a good leadership team in place that is committed to moving forward in a different way,” said Abrams. “I think it would still take years for the scar tissue to heal with the employees.”
The only thing that’s certain is Bezos will never have his colonies in space if he can’t build the rockets to get there – and that may be a problem that no amount of money can fix.