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.

Blue Origin’s CEO wants to build more suborbital New Shepard spacecraft

Capitalism in space: Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, declared yesterday that the company has more space tourist customers than it can fly on its single New Shepard suborbital spacecraft, and wants to build more to handle the potential traffic.

Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin flew 14 people to space in 2021, and CEO Bob Smith on Thursday said the firm needs to build more of its New Shepard rockets to meet the demand from the space tourism market. “I think the challenge for Blue at this point is that we’re actually supply limited,” Smith said, speaking at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington.

If true, this is good news, for the suborbital tourist market. It means there might be enough business for both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to survive and make money, at least for a few years.

At the same time, Smith’s focus seems wildly misplaced, since it is the orbital market, not the suborbital space tourism market, where the future lies, as well as the really big money. Putting tourists on short ten minute hops to space might be exciting right now, but very soon it will seem very passe, as more and more orbital tourist flights take place.

I wonder if anyone asked Smith about the status of Blue Origin’s orbital rocket, New Glenn, which remains untested and years behind schedule, all because.the BE-4 engine that will power it is also years behind schedule. It would be nice to know when the first flightworthy engines will be delivered to ULA, as well as installed on New Glenn. Those engines were promised more than a year ago, and are still not a reality.

Washington Post slams Blue Origin

Capitalism in space: In a long article today the Washington Post — owned by Jeff Bezos — harshly criticized the management at Bezos’s space company Blue Origin, confirming earlier stories last week (here and here) and published by other news sources that accused the company of poor management and an unhealthy corporate culture. From the Post’s article:

The new management’s “authoritarian bro culture,” as one former employee put it, affected how decisions were made and permeated the institution, translating into condescending, sometimes humiliating, comments and harassment toward some women and a stagnant top-down hierarchy that frustrated many employees.

Though the story strongly confirms those earlier reports, I found it somewhat hilarious in that it seemed far more interested in “woke” issues than Blue Origin’s inability to get anything actually built.

However, that Jeff Bezos allowed the Washington Post to publish it suggests strongly that Bezos is getting ready to take harsh action at Blue Origin, and is laying the groundwork through his newspaper. If so, this is excellent news, as it might mean this very disappointing company might finally get back on track.

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.

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.