On Tuesday, February 2, Jeff Bezos announced that he would be stepping down as Amazon’s CEO later this year (though he will stay with the company as he transitions into a role as executive chairman of Amazon’s board). In his statement, Bezos noted that he was looking forward to having “the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions.” He continued, “I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have.”
Blue Origin. Bezos founded the space company in 2000, and it’s got some pretty big achievements under its belt: with its New Shepard rocket, it pulled off the first successful vertical landing of a rocket that had gone to space (well, suborbital space), and it reused that booster four more times.
But for the most part, Blue Origin is falling behind its peers. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket (reusable, and capable of going all the way into orbit) has flown more than 100 missions, with a remarkable track record of success since 2016. Its Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket today. Even smaller companies can boast more business than Blue Origin. Rocket Lab, for instance, has nearly perfected the design of its lightweight Electron rocket, which features 3D-printed engines that are cheaper and faster to make. In 18 missions, Electron has delivered more satellites into space than Blue Origin. And it’s already got plans to send a probe to Venus in a few years.
Blue Origin could catch up, though. Several new projects under way could position the company to finally start competing directly with SpaceX and others, and generate steady revenue from a regular line of customers (no more selling off Amazon stock to fund it). Having Bezos more involved in the day-to-day could be a big asset in securing those customers and inking contracts that really put the company on the map.
Here are the six ongoing Blue Origin projects that Bezos could bolster now that he has more time on his hands.
New Shepard was developed with one major goal in mind: to safely and affordably send people into space on suborbital missions, where they could spend a few minutes in microgravity and enjoy the view of the planet from high up. In its current design, it should be able to take six passengers at once on these missions.
The company was hoping for a crewed New Shepard flight in 2019. That didn’t happen. And the pandemic put a stop to most of the company’s launch activities in 2020. Everyone’s waiting patiently to see if 2021 is the golden year, but that looks pretty unlikely at the moment.
Bezos himself can’t do anything to speed up testing and development of New Shepard and get it ready for human spaceflight. But the same way Musk is an evangelist for generating interest in SpaceX, Bezos could play the same role by being the salesman he is, getting people interested in booking tickets to space and publicizing the company’s work more aggressively. If Blue Origin wants to dominate the space tourism market, now is as good a time as any.
Getting New Glenn off the ground
New Glenn is where the real fun starts. Like the Falcon Heavy, New Glenn is a heavy-lift rocket with a reusable first-stage booster, intended to send satellites into orbit. The company is targeting this year for New Glenn’s inaugural launch.
Again, Bezos can’t do anything to speed up that timetable. But what he could do is spend more time going after customers. Right now, Blue Origin has a handful of contracts to launch commercial satellites. But it’s going to need a steady stream of missions to justify New Glenn’s existence and start making money. Now would be a good time for Bezos to put those billionaire connections to use.
Satellites, satellites, satellites
And there ought to be plenty of customers who are interested. It’s cheaper than ever to build a satellite. We can make them lighter and more compact than ever before, so it’s far easier to send them into space.
When New Glenn starts flying, it ought to take a cue from SpaceX and consider ride-share missions that launch dozens or even hundreds of payloads into orbit at once. Leadership might want to start preparing such a strategy if it hopes to be a strong player in the launch provider market.
Speaking of satellites, we’re poised to see Blue Origin launching a lot more of its own payloads into orbit once New Glenn can fly. Introducing Project Kuiper: an Amazon spinoff that wants to set up a satellite constellation to provide high-speed internet to people around the world. Sounds familiar, right?
While Kuiper’s proposed 3,236-satellite constellation will be far less than the 12,000 Starlink satellites SpaceX is planning to launch, that’s still a hefty number. And perhaps Bezos can use Kuiper’s late arrival to avoid SpaceX’s mistakes with Starlink—namely, not disrupting astronomy around the world, and finding ways to manage all that orbital congestion to allay fears about collisions that could turn Earth’s orbit into dangerous minefield. While we can expect Blue Origin to play a big role in Kuiper satellite launches, Bezos has said that he’s open to using other rockets if needed, so now might also be a good time to see what’s available.
Blue Moon and Artemis
Blue Origin doesn’t just wanna stick to Earth’s orbit. It wants to go to the moon. And it wants to help NASA get there too. One of the company’s biggest projects is Blue Moon, a lunar lander that is supposed to carry cargo as well as people. Blue Origin is working with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper on a larger concept that they say NASA could use to safely take astronauts to the surface under its Artemis program. Parts of the system would be reusable, and should integrate well with NASA’s Gateway space station in lunar orbit.
The Blue Origin–led proposal seems better positioned to be selected by NASA than SpaceX’s (though Dynetics has also impressed the agency). But NASA under the Biden administration has delayed selection of a lunar lander as it reevaluates the Artemis program’s timetable and 2024 target for a moon mission.
This is good! It gives Blue Origin more time to properly test Blue Moon, work more closely with its partners on the project, and perhaps find other ways to build on these technologies for other applications.
Lastly, one of Blue Origin’s biggest strengths has been its rocket engines, particularly the BE-4. Every New Glenn rocket will use the BE-4 engine, and so will United Launch Alliance’s upcoming Vulcan rocket (you don’t always see a rocket company turn to its competitor for parts). The engine will be going into space later this year for the first time, either on Vulcan or on New Glenn.
Once again, Bezos could play a bigger role in getting other aerospace companies to start incorporating BE-4 more widely in their own systems.