By Kenneth Chang, The New York Times Co.
For most of its two decades of existence, Blue Origin was like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in the children’s book by Roald Dahl.
It was a rocket company founded by Jeffrey Bezos, the billionaire who had created Amazon. That much was known. What the company was actually doing was shrouded in mystery.
“But everyone wanted to get in,” laughed Carissa Christensen, founder and chief executive of Bryce Space and Technology, an aerospace consulting firm.
Bezos announced Tuesday that he would be stepping down as chief executive of Amazon this summer and becoming executive chairman. In his letter to Amazon employees, he said he wanted to put time and energy into other passions and listed Blue Origin among them.
The coming years for Blue Origin promise to be busy — flying tourists on short suborbital jaunts, launching satellites on a new rocket, developing a lunar lander for NASA.
Does that mean Bezos will take a bigger day-to-day role at his rocket company?
“If Jeff chose to spend more time at Blue Origin during the next phase of his career, that would be a very good thing for Blue,” said Rob Meyerson, who was president of Blue Origin from 2003 to 2017. “He brings great intelligence, great operational expertise and great mission passion to the business.”
Meyerson noted that Bezos’ other ventures include the Bezos Earth Fund, which last year gave $100 million to the Environmental Defense Fund to build and operate a methane-detecting satellite. Amazon, where Bezos will continue to be involved, is developing Project Kuiper, a constellation of satellites to beam internet service to Earth.
“It’s clear that space will be a prominent theme,” Meyerson said.
Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 — two years before Elon Musk started the Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX.
But while Musk and SpaceX have already built a thriving business — launching satellites and NASA astronauts to orbit and developing a huge rocket named Starship that is intended to take people to Mars someday — Blue Origin seems to lag.
In its early days, the company only occasionally offered drips of news. Reporters would call Blue Origin’s public relations firm to obtain a perfunctory “declined to comment” from the company.
In November 2006, a gumdrop-shaped test craft successfully rose a modest 285 feet into the air and then returned gently back to the ground at a site in West Texas. Bezos reported the success in a blog post on the Blue Origin website — 1 1/2 months later.
There were no other updates for 4 1/2 years until Bezos acknowledged that a test vehicle had crashed, but only after The Wall Street Journal had reported the failure.
Over the years, Blue Origin became less secretive. Five years ago, Bezos welcomed a group of reporters for a tour of the company’s headquarters in Kent, Washington, a few miles south of Seattle. During lunch, he happily answered questions. “It’s my total pleasure,” he said then. “I hope you can sense that I like this.”
Since then, Blue Origin has grown quickly. It has a contract with NASA for developing a lander that might take astronauts to the surface of the moon in a few years. It sells rocket engines to another rocket company, United Launch Alliance. It charges customers to fly science experiments on New Shepard, a suborbital spacecraft.
But those are so far modest in scope. Blue Origin has not yet started sales for New Shepard’s primary business — taking tourists on short rides to the edge of space — or even had people aboard on any of the test flights.
New Glenn, a larger rocket that would compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 workhorse, will not take off on its maiden flight until at least later this year.
“They have grand plans, but they have yet to actually launch any humans aboard any of their craft,” said Laura Seward Forczyk, owner of Astralytical, a space consulting firm.
Musk and Bezos have periodically sparred about their rockets and whether humans should aim for Mars — Musk’s ultimate destination — or build free-floating colonies as Bezos envisions.
In an interview with Maureen Dowd last year, Musk offered faint praise for Bezos and Blue Origin: “The rate of progress is too slow and the amount of years he has left is not enough, but I’m still glad he’s doing what he’s doing with Blue Origin.”
That does not necessarily mean Blue Origin is far behind.
During his tour with reporters in 2016, Bezos pointed to an image in the headquarters’ central area. It showed two tortoises holding an hourglass and gazing upward toward the cosmos. Below was Blue Origin’s motto: Gradatim ferociter, which is Latin for “step by step, ferociously.”
Blue Origin may hope to turn out to be the tortoise of the fable where slow and steady wins over the speedy hare. Bezos’ wealth — he has been selling billions of dollars in Amazon stock to help finance Blue Origin — has allowed Blue Origin to follow a methodical, long-term plan without needing to generate much revenue in the short term.
Bezos has spoken in more detail about a future where millions of people live and work in space. The aim of Blue Origin, he said, is to help people get there.
“We are going to build a road to space,” Bezos said during a presentation in 2019 when he unveiled a design for a lunar lander. “And then amazing things will happen.”
Blue Origin has a rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, and huge facilities just outside NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for assembling the New Glenn rockets.
In 2016, Bezos said he spent one day a week at Blue Origin. Although he majored in electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton as an undergraduate, Bezos let his engineers talk about the technical aspects of the Blue Origin spacecraft to reporters.
By contrast, Musk, with the title of chief engineer, is deeply involved with engineering details at SpaceX, although Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer, handles most of the company’s day-to-day details.
Thus, as Blue Origin shifts from research and development to a pursuit of revenue and profits, now may be an ideal time to bring in someone with the business successes of Amazon.
“He is a business person who knows how to make money,” Christensen said. “Maybe this is the moment in time where it’s just too enticing for him to stay away.”
She added: “Amazon was like no other company before it. If Jeff Bezos is truly going to devote more time to Blue, I wonder if it is going to become like no other launch company before it.”
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