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.
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