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Review: Amazon Unbound and its insights into Blue Origin

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Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire
by Brad Stone
Simon & Schuster, 2021
hardcover, 496 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-9821-3261-3

The good news is that you can now buy a seat on a New Shepard suborbital flight. The bad news is that you probably can’t afford it. Blue Origin announced early this month it would offer a single seat on the first crewed flight of New Shepard, scheduled for July 20, which it would auction off. Last week, the company unsealed the bids it received in the first phase, and moved into a more open bidding phase. As of early May 24, the current high bid was $2.8 million, with the bidding set to conclude with a live auction June 12.

Bezos tried to poach Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, to be Blue Origin’s CEO in 2016; she “quickly rebuffed it,” Stone reports.

The announcement of the auction was a disappointment for some, who had thought Blue Origin would finally announce its plans to sell tickets for New Shepard flights, including pricing. During a brief call with reporters, a company official offered no update on exactly when Blue Origin will start selling tickets (but did note that the company will follow up with the “most active bidders” in the auction regarding future ticket sales.) Beyond the July 20 flight, the company expects to perform “a couple more crewed flights” through the end of the year but didn’t elaborate.

The lack of details about future plans was disappointing, but not necessarily surprising. The company has maintained a deliberate, seemingly unhurried pace in the development of New Shepard. Meanwhile, development of its New Glenn orbital rocket has also gone slowly, with the company recently pushing back its first launch to late 2022 (see “Waiting is the hardest part”, The Space Review, March 1, 2021). United Launch Alliance has been waiting patiently for Blue Origin to complete final testing of the BE-4 engine that will be used on its Vulcan Centaur, pushing that rocket’s first launch to at least late this year.

So what’s the deal with Blue Origin? There are some details about how the company operates in Amazon Unbound, the new book about and Jeff Bezos by Brad Stone, a reporter who has covered both Bezos and Amazon for years. It was Stone who, in a 2003 Newsweek article, revealed the existence of Blue Origin, back when it was a tiny venture studying a range of spaceflight approaches. Now Blue Origin has thousands of employees and has spent billions of dollars, but has yet to send a person to suborbital space or placed a payload into orbit.

In his new book, Stone devotes a chapter to Blue Origin, titled “Gradatim Ferociter” after the company’s motto. When the book came out earlier this month, that chapter generated news when it revealed that Bezos tried to poach Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, to be the company’s CEO in 2016; she “quickly rebuffed it,” Stone reports, moving on from that revelation after a single sentence.

What’s more interesting, though, is why Blue Origin pursued Shotwell, or others, to be CEO. By 2016, Bezos had started holding a series of one-on-one meetings with Blue Origin executives, trying to understand why the company was struggling to make progress while SpaceX was speeding ahead. “They complained about poor internal communications, time-consuming meetings, and inexplicable spending decisions,” Stone writes. The company eventually hired Bob Smith, a Honeywell Aerospace executive, as CEO, a process that itself involved more than two dozen interviews over a year.

Rob Meyerson had long been Blue Origin’s president, but is described in the book as struggling to implement the “increasingly lofty goals” sets by Bezos, but with a “minimum of resources” that led to friction within the company and low morale. Bezos attended a technical meeting, criticizing one long-time Blue Origin employee so severely that the employee quit by text message at 3 a.m. the next morning.

Blue Origin, Stone concludes, is still “struggling with the dysfunction encoded into its genetic makeup by Bezos, who had otherwise succeeded in nearly everything else he had created.”

The change in leadership was also accompanied a change in strategy. Blue Origin took the long view and had avoided competition, even bowing out in the early stages of NASA’s commercial crew program (when he later found out the program provided SpaceX with billions of dollars, Bezos reportedly asked, “Why did we decide not to bid on that?”) But it now decided to pursue competition, going after the same National Security Space Launch (NSSL) contract that ULA was pursuing, after previously assuring ULA it would not compete.

Those changes, though, haven’t altered Blue Origin’s trajectory. SpaceX and ULA beat Blue Origin (and Northrop Grumman) for NSSL contracts. SpaceX beat Blue Origin again for the Human Landing System contract last month, although both Blue Origin and Dynetics, the other losing bidder, are protesting. The contrast between Blue Origin and SpaceX “was never starker” than last year, Stone argues, when SpaceX started launching NASA astronauts into orbit and established itself as “the world’s dominant rocket company.”

Blue Origin, Stone concludes, is still “struggling with the dysfunction encoded into its genetic makeup by Bezos, who had otherwise succeeded in nearly everything else he had created.” If one takes the long view, like Bezos professes to do, that slow start won’t mean much in the long run. But now, with SpaceX moving quickly on multiple fronts, including its iterative development of Starship—an approach Bezos once envisioned for Blue Origin, Stone writes—Blue Origin risks falling further behind. The tortoise can’t give the hare that much of a head start, especially when the hare only seems to be running faster. (SpaceX’s online legion of fans are known to taunt “Jeff who?” in response to any news about Blue Origin.)

Amazon Unbound is, of course, about much more than Blue Origin, as Stone examines other aspects of Amazon’s increasingly diversified business, as well as Bezos’s acquisition of the Washington Post and his personal life. (Amazon’s own space effort, the Project Kuiper constellation, is briefly discussed on a paragraph near the end of the book. Amazon, in a recent move that raised some space industry eyebrows, announced a launch deal with ULA, not Blue Origin, and for ULA’s existing Atlas 5 rather than the BE-4-powered Vulcan.) That offers a fascinating contrast between the “flywheel” of growth at Amazon, which made Bezos the world’s wealthiest man, and the Blue Origin, still working to get off the ground after two decades.

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