Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has spent two decades trailing Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the space-exploration race. To fix this, Bezos has turned to a trusted Amazon.com Inc. lieutenant known for getting products out the door.
(Bloomberg) — Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has spent two decades trailing Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the space-exploration race. To fix this, Bezos has turned to a trusted Amazon.com Inc. lieutenant known for getting products out the door.
Incoming Blue Origin Chief Executive Officer Dave Limp, who shepherded Alexa’s introduction in 2014, is a fierce guardian of Amazon and Bezos’ leadership principles, which put a premium on speed and solving customer problems.
“Dave has an outstanding sense of urgency, brings energy to everything, and helps teams move very fast,” Bezos told employees on Monday in an email seen by Bloomberg.
What Limp will tackle is an organization marked by grinding bureaucracy and poor execution, critics say.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket has been sidelined since last year by a mid-flight failure. The development of its BE-4 engine and New Glenn rocket have been marked by delays and setbacks. And the firm lost a bid to buy Ball Aerospace in August, a person familiar with the matter said.
Outgoing CEO Bob Smith, who steps down in December, did secure several billion dollars worth of contracts for flights on the company’s future New Glenn rockets and boosted headcount more than ten-fold in his six years in the job. But the company still has to prove it can actually launch its more ambitious spacecraft.
Blue Origin’s struggles are fueling concerns about its ability to fulfill launch contracts for Amazon and NASA and that SpaceX could end up cornering the launch market with its family of Falcon rockets. And rival Virgin Galactic, which was well behind Blue Origin’s six commercial tourist flights, just notched its third.
“The company has been around for 20 plus years, and they haven’t flown anything other than a suborbital rocket,” Space Capital Managing Partner and SpaceX investor Chad Anderson said in a phone interview. “Sometimes you need to bring someone in from outside of aerospace, like a product person, to get them out of this endless R&D rut.”
Conversations with more than a dozen people in the space industry, including current and former Blue Origin employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, paint a picture of a bloated firm struggling to catch up with SpaceX.
In 2021, the rivalry came to a head when the company lost out to SpaceX in a bid to build NASA’s lander to take humans to the moon, leading to a very public lawsuit that Blue Origin lost.
Before Smiths’ departure was announced, Blue Origin was starting to show progress. It is now working to resume flights of its suborbital tourist rocket New Shepard before the end of the year, three people familiar with its plans say, and hopes to finally launch its much larger orbital New Glenn rocket in 2024. And the company is working on a multibillion-dollar lander for NASA to take humans to the moon.
Blue Origin and Smith did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Amazon.com Inc. declined to comment.
Limp had been one of Amazon’s highest profile leaders as head of its devices and services business. He made his mark, some colleagues said, during the early years of Alexa’s development as a go-between, relaying input from Bezos — the shadow product manager — to teams working on features for the voice assistant.
When Alexa became a hit, Limp led the effort to spread its domain beyond its Echo speakers, forging partnerships that put the digital assistant into all manner of products. Some, like an Amazon-built microwave, wound up the butt of jokes — signs of excesses in Amazon’s boom years.
Today, Amazon operates a massive business selling smart speakers, budget tablets and e-readers. But it’s not a profitable one, and was among the first to hold layoffs in rolling cuts at Amazon that started late last year.
Limp’s Amazon devices group had responsibility for the company’s burgeoning Internet-from-space satellite venture, Project Kuiper. Amazon plans to use Blue’s long-delayed New Glenn rocket to loft some of its satellites.
In interviews with Bloomberg earlier this year, Limp said he’d always been fascinated with space. “If you haven’t ever gone and seen a rocket launch, it is well worth your time,” he said. “Those folks tell me it never gets old.”
Bezos, whose official duties at Amazon are limited to his board role as executive chairman, remains deeply engaged in crucial strategic decisions at Blue Origin, people familiar with the matter said, earmarking two days a week for its meetings. In recent months, he’s wrangled with engineers about the Blue Origin moon lander the firm is developing with Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Bezos has said Blue Origin “is the most important work I’m doing.” The Bloomberg Billionaires Index estimates that in 2021 he doubled the amount of money he was pumping into the company annually to $2 billion.
Bezos’ stepped-up involvement was in part due to concerns with Smith’s execution, according to people with knowledge of the matter. After Blue Origin lost the 2021 NASA moon lander contract, Bezos tried to resurrect its bid, and at one point personally offered to cover $2 billion in NASA costs in exchange for a contract.
Ultimately, NASA reopened competition on a second lunar lander contract after pressure from lawmakers. Blue Origin entered again, and over last Thanksgiving week Bezos reviewed that proposal line by line, a person familiar with the process said. His firm secured that contract, worth $3.4 billion.
Blue Origin aims to return New Shepard to flight before year end on a test basis, three people familiar with its plans said.
The rocket has been grounded for a year since it failed mid-flight. Blue Origin said the mishap was caused by thermo-structural failure of the engine nozzle and it’s making upgrades. And the firm determined that the June explosion of one of its BE-4 engines on a Texas test stand was due to poorly calibrated instrumentation settings — ruling out fears over a design or component issue, according to a person familiar with the matter.
But Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket — already three years behind schedule — isn’t likely to debut until late 2024, two people familiar with its development said. This raises questions about its ability to launch a pair of small satellites for NASA, Kuiper satellites for Amazon and new Telesat satellites.
Space Capital’s Anderson said that Blue Origin’s customers are likely growing impatient.
“For all their ambitions — space stations and super heavy vehicles and all this stuff — they’re going to have to start delivering,” he said.
–With assistance from Thomas Black, Tom Maloney, Kiel Porter, Aaron Kirchfeld and Ed Ludlow.
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