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2018 review by Blue Origin suggested changes that were not adopted

Capitalism in space: Shortly after Bob Smith took over as CEO of Blue Origin he hired a consulting firm to review the company’s corporate culture and management policies, then had a top management briefing to review what that analysis had found.

Notes from that meeting by Blue Origin’s management have now become available, and suggest that the company’s management recognized it needed to make some changes in how it operated in order to better compete with SpaceX. Blue Origin had become hidebound, timid, and structured in a manner that made the creation of cost-effective engineering difficult. For example,

Traditionally Blue team has not been focused on producibility and cost when designing,” another executive commented.

In response to the Avascent’s report on SpaceX’s cost focus, Blue Origin officials also acknowledged that they did not have an effective means of estimating costs before beginning a project. “Blue is riddled with poor estimating,” one executive wrote, specifically citing the New Glenn rocket. “The estimates barely cover the spot cost buy of that material based on market price, let alone the entire part material purchase. How did SpaceX keep to their target cost? They probably did a good job estimating. How they accomplished such good estimating is beyond me right now, but they did it somehow for their early years.” [emphasis mine]

As noted at the link, however, there is no evidence the company every made any of the suggested changes:

Whatever Bob Smith hoped to glean from the Avascent study, it’s not clear that the work has had a salutary effect on Blue Origin’s culture.

In the nearly three years since the report’s completion, SpaceX has gone on to launch more than 60 rockets, including four human missions, into orbit. SpaceX also has leaped ahead on a number of other fronts, including winning a multi-billion contract from NASA to build a Human Landing System for the Artemis Moon Program.

Blue Origin, by contrast, has succeeded in launching a single human flight on its New Shepard system—carrying Bezos into space for a few minutes in July. The company’s first orbital flight likely remains about three years away. Far from embracing openness, it remains more opaque than ever. And there are emerging questions about the company’s culture.

I would be more blunt. Prior to Bob Smith’s arrival in 2017 Blue Origin’s management style appeared somewhat similar to SpaceX’s, with regular almost monthly test flights of New Shepard. After he arrived everything slowed down, with the management style becoming all the things the 2018 Avascent study found wrong. And in the three years since that report and management meeting, it appears Smith did nothing to change anything. Blue Origin appears to remain a hidebound company going nowhere.

The company has vast resources due to the cash that Jeff Bezos has poured into it. It needs some good courageous leadership however. The main question will be whether Bezos can provide that.

Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


All editions are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all book vendors, with the ebook priced at $5.99 before discount. The ebook can also be purchased direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit, in which case you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


Autographed printed copies are also available at discount directly from me (hardback $24.95; paperback $14.95; Shipping cost for either: $5.00). Just email me at zimmerman @ nasw dot org.


  • Jay

    Whenever you see the SpaceX launches, you see or at least hear the workers in Hawthorne watch and cheer the launches and landings of their spacecraft. That is a culture where everyone in that company is involved and they get to see the products of their labor. I read the median age at SpaceX is the mid-twenties, just out of school, a can-do-spirit, and the sky is the limit.
    Blue Origin use to be like SpaceX. Bob is hired and there is the point of divergence. Whatever creativity there was got squashed by rigid management. I thought it would take BO a couple years to get New Glenn off the ground but this article says it is now three.

    On a side note, if New Glenn is not flying, they better line up some ESA, ULA, and Roscosmos flights quick to get their Kuiper satellites up.

  • Col Beausabre

    ““Traditionally Blue team has not been focused on producibility and cost when designing,”

    I fully understand the item about producibility. You need to include industrial engineering and the people who will have to build the darn thing from the beginning. Otherwise R&D designs something, throws it over the wall to production, who screams, “we can’t build that” (at least at a cost that will allow a profit to be made)

  • Mike Borgelt

    “I fully understand the item about producibility. You need to include industrial engineering and the people who will have to build the darn thing from the beginning. Otherwise R&D designs something, throws it over the wall to production, who screams, “we can’t build that” (at least at a cost that will allow a profit to be made)”

    I read about the Skunk Works and Kelly Johnson insisted that the machinist making the part be no more than 40 feet (IIRC) from the designer. Prevents those sort of problems

  • Jeff Wright

    One bunch of suits looks over another..ha! I guess you have to do that. There were med students posing as psych patients. “Excessive note-taking.” Funny. Shark Tank had an episode where Herjivk told a man “you started with too much money.” Now at first that made no sense-but then I remembered how AeroVironment’s founder looked at debt as a boot to get moving.

  • Edward

    From the ArsTechnica article:

    Customer focus
    The consultants identified SpaceX as having a strong emphasis on satisfying customers, seeking to provide desirable services at a lower cost.

    Considering that SpaceX was founded because Musk wanted to send commercial probes to Mars but discovered that launch costs were prohibitive, this should be the primary strength of SpaceX. This is quite a compliment for them.

    One example demonstrated how important price was to customers.

    Price was important to commercial customers for at least three decades before SpaceX put its first rocket in orbit. This was well known and was the driving force behind the Ansari X-Prize. Even at that time, the mid 1990s, people were comparing launch vehicles with throwing away airliners after a single flight. The Space Shuttle was supposed to solve the launch-cost problem, but that didn’t work out quite as expected.

    However, Blue Origin was expecting to reuse its own booster stage, allowing them to reduce launch costs, just like SpaceX. Why does Blue Origin sound surprised that price is important?

    SpaceX is also known for iterative design, a process by which engineers spend less time studying and designing problems, and more time building and testing solutions.

    This process or philosophy is best used during development and early design, but we saw it also on the Falcon 9 as it went through several versions until the company settled on its Block 5 version. I also expect Starship to undergo similar versions until a final version is chosen. We should see far fewer explosions at Boca Chica, but a rocket that does not explode may still need much improvement.

    Blue Origin had a failed first landing of its booster stage, but the company did not release that video. SpaceX is open about its “learning experiences,” even to the point of releasing music videos of their rockets exploding. SpaceX thinks of their learning experiences as a badge of honor, “see, we are getting better at doing impossible things.” Blue Origin seems to think of failure as failure rather than lessons learned, thus Blue Origin may not be trying to push the envelope of what we think is possible. SpaceX is doing the bizarre and the seemingly impossible in order to reduce costs and the price tag on launch as well as to increase the launch rate. SpaceX sees a future with a large number of launches, but Blue Origin has less vision.

    Five years ago, ULA had a vision, but it has abandoned most of what it had said it was going to do. Also, we can see that we are a little behind schedule, this year having only had a maximum of 14 people working in space, not 20. (7 minutes, CisLunar 1000)

    Elon Musk has plenty of business experience, and he made himself the chief engineer not because he had the best ideas but because he could manage other people’s best ideas into reality in a rapid and successful way. Jeff Bezos has plenty of business experience growing a business into different areas and brining products (services) to market. He could provide similar leadership.

    Tory Bruno at ULA should likewise lead his company into its 2016 vision, where his company provides services in space, supporting the coming space economy, even if he is unable to innovate a reusable launch vehicle. Especially if he is unable to innovate a competitive launch vehicle, because his company will die if he does not renew its vision.

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