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Blue Origin abandons plans to land New Glenn first stages on purchased cargo ship

Capitalism in space: This week it was revealed that Blue Origin has abandoned its plan to use a purchased and refurbished cargo ship as an ocean landing platform for the first stages of its New Glenn rocket.

The company had bought the ship in 2018, when it thought New Glenn would be flying by 2020, and planned to reconfigure it by covering it with a giant landing pad. It appears the company abandoned that plan because of cost. What it plans to do instead to provide New Glenn first stages a place to land remains unclear.

Some historical details that provide some context and might explain the change in plans. In 2016 Blue Origin was launching test flights of its New Shepard suborbital craft on almost a monthly basis. It appears to have an aggressive attitude towards development, with New Glenn aiming for a 2020 launch.

In 2017 Jeff Bezos hired Bob Smith to take over as Blue Origin’s CEO. At that point development slowed to a crawl. For the next four years New Shepard test flights dropped to about one per year. Also at that time development of the BE-4 rocket engine needed for both New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan rocket also slowed to a crawl, apparently because the company’s management would not commit funds to buy extra engines for testing.

In 2018 Blue Origin signed a deal with the Air Force, thus delaying New Glenn’s first launch by a year. The deal appeared to stem from a desire of Blue Origin management to get government contracts and money first rather than committing any company money to development, the approach used by older big space companies for decades. While it reduces risk, this approach also makes the government a partner in development, which has historically slowed all development while significantly raising costs.

That same year it bought this ship as the rocket’s landing pad, though relatively little work is done on it for years.

In 2021 Jeff Bezos stepped down as Amazon CEO to focus more time on Blue Origin. Suddenly, New Shepard ups its launch rate, and finally starts flying passengers. At the same time, the testing of the BE-4 engine appears to accelerate.

Now Blue Origin is abandoning this ship that was purchased after Bob Smith took over.

Does one get the feeling that Bezos might have finally realized that the management under Smith was not very effective? Smith is still Blue Origin’s CEO, but one wonders how long this will last.

Conscious Choice cover

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  • Concerned

    I think you have to go one step higher: Bezos is really a rich guy pretending to be an engineer. He is nowhere in the same league as Musk technically. How do I know this? Just use the simple criterion that Musk himself has explained how he technically vets people in interviews. Sure, Bezos is much more rare and secretive in his media appearances. But the Musk criterion is if you really know what you’re talking about in a technical field and how *you* solved a tough problem, you’ll be able to easily provide fine detail. I’ve never seen any evidence in Bezos media interviews that he grasps the fine technical details of any aspect of aerospace engineering or its sub-fields. Musk is the opposite—he can cite fundamental and oftentimes modern specialty knowledge from propulsion engineering, aerodynamics, control systems, avionics, structural engineering, etc. Bezos has made a shipload of money as a shrewd and often predatory businessman, and he even has a college degree or two in physics, but I see no evidence he has the technical chops to make the same kind of big high risk, high reward decisions in the expanding Commercial Space Transportation field.

  • Jeff Wright

    He doesn’t want to spend money. He has this bean counter handler come in and Diamond hand things. You have to spend billions if you want to go to space. Bezos has to be less of a tightwad.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Is it that, or is he afraid of failure at any step.
    The whole “step by step” thing. He is worried about making a mis-step. Too many former government people in his program that act as if any part of it fails, the whole thing goes away, which is what happens in government programs.

    How many NASA planned systems ran into a road block or had a failure that resulted in the entire thing stopping?

    The Apollo 1 and Challenger stand as exceptions. Columbia tho, was never replaced, and in my mind, made it easier to end the program.
    Apollo of course had the National level of competition behind it (gotta beat the Russians) and with Challenger they were already passed R&D. It was a full system, and was looked differently.

    I wonder how many BO engineers are worried if New Glenn crashes, blows up, fails to land, that Bezos will stop it all, and bury Blue Origin in West Texas?

  • Ray Van Dune

    SpaceX is driven by Elon Musk’s vision of humanity being multi-planetary. BO isn’t.

  • Yaj

    Don’t forget that blue origin tried patenting water landing on a barge while SpaceX was successfully doing so.

  • Concerned

    Yaj—well of course, they’re Blue Origin after all. Their army of lawyers has taken out a patent on water.

  • Jeff Wright

    Ray—you are spot on. You can’t copy “drive:”
    You have it or you don’t.

  • Jeremy, Alabama

    Thanks Jeff – I was going to quibble with Ray’s comment, as I believe Bezos is interested in Mars colonization. However the operative word is “drive”.

    I believe Bezos’ first interest is giant spinning habitable space stations, to move off-planet into orbiting Edens. The appeal here is that it is something he can take advantage of (I think one would have to be very *driven* to undertake a journey to Mars), and it is the modern take on seasteading and might even turn a profit.

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