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What is wrong at Blue Origin?

Link here. The article by Eric Berger depends on many anonymous sources at Blue Origin, and suggests that the central reason the first launch of the company’s orbital New Glenn rocket has been delayed until 2022 at the earliest is because Jeff Bezos decided to have them build its biggest iteration first, rather than take smaller steps upward to that version.

[I]nstead of offering a waypoint between New Shepard and a massive orbital rocket, Bezos ultimately opted to jump right to the massive, 313-foot-tall version. “It’s like if NASA had gone straight from Alan Shepard to the Saturn V rocket, but then also had to make the Saturn V reusable,” one former Blue Origin employee said.

Instead of crawl-walk-run, Bezos asked his engineering team to begin sprinting toward the launch pad. The engineering challenges of building such a large rocket are big enough. But because New Glenn is so expensive to build, the company needs to recover it from the outset. SpaceX enjoyed a learning curve with the Falcon 9, only successfully recovering the first stage on the rocket’s 20th launch. Blue Origin engineers will be expected to bring New Glenn back safely on its very first mission.

The decision to skip the “walk” part of the company’s development has cost Blue Origin dearly, sources say. The company’s engineering teams, composed of smart and talented people, are struggling with mighty technical challenges. And there are only so many lessons that can be learned from New Shepard—the smaller rocket has 110,000 pounds of thrust, and New Glenn will have very nearly 4 million.

While I am certain there is some truth to this, the article also appears to me to be a sales job for Bob Smith, the CEO that Bezos hired in 2017 to run Blue Origin. There have been many rumors that he takes a more traditional approach to rocket development, which means no failures can be allowed and must be designed out from the beginning. In fact, the article hints at this, but then spins it to Smith’s favor.

Since Smith arrived in the fall of 2017, some employees have struggled with his leadership style and complained that he has acted too slowly, pushing Blue Origin to become more like a traditional aerospace company than a nimble new-space startup. But from Smith’s perspective, he’s trying to implement a culture transformation, from a hobby-shop atmosphere to that of a major aerospace contractor that can go out and win major NASA and Defense Department contracts.

The history of the past five years confirms the employees’ perspective, not Smith’s. Before he arrived Blue Origin was getting things built and launched, at a fast pace. After he took over that pace slowed to crawl, in all its projects.

In fact, I would say that Blue Origin’s problems really come as much from Smith as Bezos. When Bezos might have pushed to go big with New Glenn, Smith should have pushed back, and insisted they build the smaller version first. Instead, he went ahead, while also apparently changing the company so that it functioned more like the older big space contractors (Boeing, Lockheed Martin) that can’t get anything built quickly for a reasonable cost.

None of this bodes well for Blue Origin or New Glenn. Unless a massive management change is instituted, the company’s future does not look as bright as it should, considering the amount of money (billions) that Bezos is committing to it. All the money in the world will do you nothing if what you want to do is poorly planned and badly executed.

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

    I think Blue Origin is being pressured to “sprint” since they have a few private contracts and D.o.D gave them $500M for development. Probably some deadline to launch or liquidated damages clause in a contract or two.
    It is funny that one of the customers is OneWeb, a competing system against Bezos’ own Kuiper, with five contracted launches. I bet there is a lot of pressure to get Kuiper up as soon as possible to try to catch up to Starlink.

  • Mike Thompson

    Which reaches orbit first? Blue Origin’s New Glenn or Rocket Lab’s Neutron?

    I’m joking, but only partly.

  • Icepilot

    We’re going to do the big, hard job first!

    But we’re going to go slow …

  • Joe

    Blue has been having issues for some time. It was noticed during the prep for on a suborbital flight I had payload on. They should be launching New Shepard monthly. Instead, it barely flies. This is not a good look for any space company.

    Bezos should spin out some of his development. Create an R&D fast track group and fly stuff. Yes they will break things, but at least they will have gain experience. You need that experience. Go get it.

  • Jeff Wright

    I actually like Bezos’ push for size-remember that Musk skipped Falcon Five and went up to the near Delta IV size nine engine rocket. It shows that he is hungry after all.

    Well, my Dad did say that he never met anyone by the name of “Smith” that was ever any good.

    Oh! The pain!

  • Edward

    Jeff Wright wrote: “remember that Musk skipped Falcon Five and went up to the near Delta IV size nine engine rocket. It shows that he is hungry after all.

    Actually, it showed that there was not a market for rockets of the Falcon 5 variety, at least not at that time. The smallsat market was not materializing (it is materializing now, a decade later), but there was a market for larger payloads. Falcon 9 got a contract for ISS resupply, but Falcon 5 could not have gotten that contract. At the time that the contract was signed, SpaceX was desperate for a revenue stream. Gaining NASA’s confidence also helped SpaceX gain the confidence of commercial satellite operators, too. Had SpaceX stayed with the Falcon 5, it would have gone the way of other startups, such as Armadillo.

    Unlike government operations, commercial operators must supply what customers want. It is why free market capitalism works and why socialism does not. Capitalists flourish when they satisfy their customers; capitalists are required to care about their customers’s needs. Socialists stagnate because they don’t; socialists care only about their ideology.

    Two questions arise for Blue Origin. Will there be a market for their New Glenn rocket, and will they be able to get it operational in a timely manner. The answer to the second question is in doubt, since their track record with New Shepard is so poor.

  • Jeff Wright

    Market forces didn’t build the Sputnik LV though-it kept that rocket alive certainly. If market concerns were all-Musk would have dusted off Falcon One for those who can’t wait for ride share. Cheaper than the conquest of Mars. Fire-in-belly is something you either have or don’t

  • Fred90024

    Aerospace engineers tend to be pretty uniformly right wing. I suspect Mr. Bezos, who personally sabotaged Parler just as FB was throwing conservatives out the door, may be in for a large number of schedule, quality and cost issues in the upcoming years. As they say, one way to make a small fortune in aerospace is to start with a large one, particularly if you’re workforce is interested in making that happen.

  • Edward

    Jeff Wright wrote: “If market concerns were all-Musk would have dusted off Falcon One for those who can’t wait for ride share. Cheaper than the conquest of Mars. Fire-in-belly is something you either have or don’t

    This assumes that SpaceX’s customer base were smallsats that wanted to go to specific orbits. Instead, many of SpaceX’s smallsats customers are willing to go to orbits that are similar to or the same as other of SpaceX’s customers.

    Keep in mind what I said: “capitalists are required to care about their customers’s needs.” Dusting off an obsolete rocket is not necessarily a good market move, and it can distract the company from properly serving its current customer base.

  • Jeff Wright

    Good point Fred. To Edward and others. American Exceptionalism demands capability over customer service. GPS was to tell cruise missiles where to hit, not to help lost housewives. Libertarians and anti-war liberals alike fail to appreciate infastructure. Now me? I am just ‘socialist’ enough to want to nationalize Old Space holdings our taxes already go to-and transfer those assets to Space Force for two reasons: to build things at cost and to shield engineers from market forces. Say what you will about China-they think enough about their white coats to keep them away from fools like Boeing’s Jack Welsh and cost-cutting morons.
    Once engineers have a free hand…innovation culture can once again be had.

    Now, before you guys red-bait me-I would leave Musk alone. But a lot of lefties-the ‘woke’ billionaires?
    They say they pay too little in taxes-so oblige them. Call for bi-partisan 99 percent tax against Zuckerberg, Bezos, Gates and Buffet, the Koch brothers, Apple guys-and everyone who tried to harm speech.
    The Dems will sell them out ’cause they love taxes-and libertarian/conservatives can get revenge for being apologists against net-neutrality…only to be punched in the face by big tech in the way of thanks. Buffet and company complain? Tell them the power to tax is the power to destroy-and have they learned their lesson yet.

    The new tax money goes in one lump sum to Space Force and NASA, with Elon launching powersats from the proceeds of this Green New Deal, and old spacers return to the halcyon days of the ABMA and Kelly Johnson! WHO’S WITH ME?

  • Edward

    Jeff Wright,
    You wrote: “American Exceptionalism demands capability over customer service.

    Wonderful. Now you are confused about business and American Exceptionalism. Is this because you have no idea what either is? We already know that free market capitalism and customer service do not require American Exceptionalism, because capitalism and service work outside America. American Exceptionalism is the freedom to try new things — the freedom to fail and to try again.

    This is why in 1976 wines from California won a competition with French wines. France required its wineries to not change their methods and techniques, because they were the finest wines in the world. California had no restrictions, so Californians experimented with improvements. Successfully. That is an example of American Exceptionalism. It did not run rough shod over the customers’s needs but responded to their needs: better wines. Indeed, it is this successful response to their needs that makes it exceptionalism.

    You have long ago demonstrated that you know nothing about libertarians, but you continue to pretend that you do. You also tend to write confusing sentences; apparently you think your readers already know what you are saying, so you shorthand ideas that require explanation or clarity.

  • pzatchok

    No good businessman ever pays any taxes, or at least pays so little he would never notice.

    Everything is a business expense including their own salary. My parents never paid themselves more than the lowest paid employee.
    All possible profits are turned into expenses.
    They only paid a real tax on the final sales price.
    Sales taxes are paid for by the customers. In fact everything is paid for by the customers.

    As for the real rich just look up trust laws.
    Bill and Hillary were “paid” multi millions the last year she was in office but not a dime showed up on their personal income taxes. It was all “paid” to them by donations to their trust. Everything they own and control is actually owned by the trust and they are paid a salary they determine themselves each year. Houses, cars, planes and even their cloths are owned by the trust. Tax free.

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