Amazon files to have shareholder lawsuit dismissed

On December 11, 2023 Amazon requested dismissal of a shareholder lawsuit against it for acting in bad faith by excluding SpaceX in its initial launch contracts with ULA, Arianespace, and Blue Origin to put its Kuiper constellation of satellites into orbit.

The lawsuit claimed that the board performed little diligence on the proposed contracts to launch the 3,236-satellite constellation with the Ariane 6, New Glenn and Vulcan Centaur rockets. The combined contracts were, it stated, the second largest capital expenditure in Amazon’s history at the time, trailing only its $13.7 billion acquisition of grocer Whole Foods.

The lawsuit stated that the board and its audit committee spent “barely an hour” reviewing those contracts, including those that would go to Blue Origin and ULA. Blue Origin is owned by Amazon founder and former chief executive Jeff Bezos, while ULA has a contract with Blue Origin to use BE-4 engines on its Vulcan rocket. The suit estimated that nearly 45% of the value of the contracts goes to Blue Origin either directly or through the BE-4 engine contract with ULA.

Amazon’s call for dismissal disputes these claims, stating that the board spent far more time on the issue, and then documents this. Interestingly, it makes no mention of the recent additional launch contract Amazon signed with SpaceX on December 3, 2023, but it is obvious that this filing was timed to occur afterward in order to strengthen Amazon’s case.

Amazon’s response (available at the link above) is heavily redacted, so some of the company’s claims are difficult to assess. For example, if the board did consider the issue of launch contractors properly, the subject of using SpaceX should have come up and been discussed at length. The redactions make it impossible to determine if this was so. If anything, what can be read suggests SpaceX was dismissed as an option far too quickly.

Amazon signs launch contract with SpaceX

Amazon on December 1, 2023 announced it has signed a three-launch contract with SpaceX to place its Kuiper satellites into orbit, supplementing the launch contracts it presently has with ULA, Arianespace, and Blue Origin. From the Amazon press release:

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is a reusable, two-stage launch vehicle designed for the reliable and safe transport of people and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond, and it has completed more than 270 successful launches to date. Project Kuiper has contracted three Falcon 9 launches, and these missions are targeted to lift off beginning in mid-2025.

In 2022 Amazon had signed contracts with the other three launch companies, with ULA getting 38 Vulcan launches (in addition to 9 already signed for its Atlas-5), Arianespace getting 18 Ariane-6 launches, and Blue Origin getting 12 New Glenn launches.

The problem however is that, except for the Atlas-5, none of these rockets has yet completed its first flight. Since Amazon’s FCC license requires it to get half of its constellation of 3,200+ satellites into orbit by 2026 or face penalties, the uncertainty of these rockets has probably forced Amazon management to consider SpaceX, despite likely hostility to such a deal from Jeff Bezos (owner of Blue Origin and founder of Amazon).

Amazon management also probably decided to sign this deal because of a lawsuit filed in September 2023 by company stockholders, accusing the management of neglience because it never even considered SpaceX in earlier contract negotiations while giving favoritism to Bezos’s company Blue Origin. At that time Amazon had already paid these launch companies about $1.7 billion, with Blue Origin getting $585 million, though not one rocket has yet launched, with Blue Origin showing no evidence that a launch coming anytime soon.

The impression of a conflict of interest by Amazon’s board of directors appeared very obvious. This new SpaceX contract weakens that accusation.

More important the deal will help Amazon actually get its satellites into orbit. It appears that reality is finally biting at Amazon, and its management has realized that the three companies they have been relying on might not be up to the job (especially Blue Origin).

The reshuffling of Blue Origin’s management continues

With the announcement yesterday that another high level executive was leaving the company — the third in less than a month — Blue Origin does appear to be making major changes in its management as well as its entire organizational structure.

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith told employees in an email on Friday that Mike Eilola, the company’s senior vice president of operations since 2021, “is leaving the company for personal reasons” on Nov. 3 and will have his unit split into two new organizations.

Eilola’s departure follows plans announced last month by Bezos to replace Smith, who has been Blue Origin’s CEO since 2017, with longtime Amazon executive Dave Limp by the end of the year. And Brent Sherwood, the head of what had been the company’s research and development unit, will depart next month, Reuters has reported.

This is not the only management restructuring. It has also shifted its lunar lander project into its own division, as well as created a new separate division for developing in-space robotic servicing and orbital tug products.

It finally appears that Jeff Bezos is taking action to get his company working again, after more than a half decade of non-achievement since Bob Smith took over in 2017. Hopefully these changes finally will produce results.

Bob Smith out at Blue Origin

Though this change probably comes four years late, the CEO of Blue Origin, Bob Smith, announced today that he is resigning from the company, effective at the end of the year.

The company’s incredibly slow implementation of all of its projects, which begun when Smith took over in 2017, has made it something of joke punchline in the space business. Suborbital test flights of its New Shepard spacecraft went from almost monthly test flights to none for years. Its orbital New Glenn rocket is four years behind schedule, and it is still doubtful it will fly next year. And the company’s BE-4 rocket engine was also years behind schedule and even now has caused enormous delays for its one outside customer, ULA, delaying the launch of its Vulcan rocket by at least four years. As noted at the link:

Smith brought a traditional aerospace mindset into a company that had hitherto been guided by a new space vision, leading to a high turnover rate. And Blue Origin remains significantly underwater, financially. It is likely that Bezos is still providing about $2 billion a year to support the company’s cash needs.

Crucially, as Blue Origin meandered under Smith’s tenure, SpaceX soared, launching hundreds of rockets and thousands of satellites. Smith, clearly, was not the leader Blue Origin needed to make the company more competitive with SpaceX in launch and other spaceflight activities. It became something of a parlor game in the space industry to guess when Bezos would finally get around to firing Smith.

Smith will be replaced by Dave Limp, who had been Amazon’s VP for devices and services until last month. Whether he can get this company moving again is still an unknown, considering he was also involved in launching Amazon’s Kuiper satellite constellation, the development of which has been as slow and uninspiring as all of Blue Origin’s projects.

Amazon investors sue company for not considering SpaceX as potential launch provider

In a lawsuit filed by Amazon investors, they claim that the company’s decision to give major and expensive launch contracts to Arianespace, ULA, and Blue Origin to put its planned 3,200 Kuiper satellite constellation into orbit but never even consider using SpaceX indicates a failure at due diligence for the shareholders as well as a possible conflict of interest.

The plaintiff’s biggest concern was the decision to give Blue Origin the contract.

The suit, filed by Amazon shareholders the Cleveland Bakers and Teamsters Pension Fund, alleges that the board spent less than 40 minutes approving the launch agreements for Amazon’s Project Kuiper mega-constellation, while not even considering leading launch company (and Blue Origin rival) SpaceX. “Amazon’s directors likely devoted barely an hour before blindly signing off on funneling […] Amazon’s money to Bezos’ unproven, struggling rocket company,” the suit says. The plaintiffs say the board failed to protect the negotiation process “from Bezos’ glaring conflict of interest.”

It appears these investors might have a point, as so far Amazon has paid these launch companies about $1.7 billion, with Blue Origin getting $585 million, though not one satellite has yet launched. Moreover, it appears from all counts that it will be very difficult for these companies — especially Blue Origin — to complete the required missions necessary to get into orbit half of Amazon’s constellation by 2026, as required by its FCC license.

Bezos and Blue Origin to star in animated kids show

If you can’t build anything, than draw it! Jeff Bezos and his space company Blue Origin are now set to star in a kids animated show called “Blue Origins Space Rangers”.

The children’s series will feature the voices of Bezos, who founded his space tourism business Blue Origin in 2000, as well as “Good Morning America” co-host Michael Strahan, who was a passenger in December 2021 on Blue Origin NS-19 on a 10-minute spaceflight. Bezos took his supersonic joy ride to space in July 2021.

Nor is this the only show that Blue Origin is part of. A feature film set to release in 2023 will feature Blue Origin’s proposed (but not yet built) Orbital Reef space station.

All of this is fun and good, but it once again raises a question of focus. Is Bezos and Blue Origin really focused on building rockets and space stations, or it is mostly a pr operation for Bezos to sell himself? The overall lack of progress on its real rockets and space stations suggests the latter.

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.

Identity of $28 million bidder for New Shepard flight revealed

Capitalism in space: The person who bid $28 million to win a seat on the first suborbital flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft has now revealed himself.

Justin Sun, the founder and CEO of the blockchain platform Tron, announced today (Dec. 22) that he’s the person who paid $28 million for a seat aboard Blue Origin’s first crewed spaceflight. That mission launched on July 20, carrying Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and three other people to suborbital space on the company’s New Shepard spacecraft. The then-unnamed auction winner was not among them, however, remaining groundbound due to scheduling conflicts, Blue Origin representatives said at the time.

But it turns out that Sun’s spaceflight dreams were just deferred, not dashed. The 31-year-old entrepreneur said today that he plans to fly on a New Shepard mission next year, along with five other “space warriors” that he will nominate.

Sun outlined what he’s looking for in a Twitter thread today. One crewmate nominee will be “a prominent figure in the crypto[currency] world,” he said. Another will be a Tron community member “with a strong passion for space,” and another will be a tech entrepreneur. The fourth and fifth nominees will be an artist and a celebrity, respectively.

It is unclear if Blue Origin is giving him six seats for his $28 million, or if Sun is paying additional money. At this time Bezos’ company has not revealed anywhere what it is actually charging for tickets.

Senate Democrats trying to sneak $10 billion payoff to Bezos’s Blue Origin in military budget

Senator Majority leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) have inserted a $10 billion subsidy to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space company in a $250 billion budget bill they are pushing that they claim will address things like the semiconductor chip shortage and the supply chain issues.

The bill, called the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, or USICA (pdf available here), is of course mostly filled with payoffs to the friends of Democrats, and will likely achieve nothing that is promised. It is also like all the budget bills being pushed by the Democratic Party in that it treats money as if it grows on trees. They can spend as much as they want, with no consequences at all.

Worse, Schumer and his cronies are trying to hide this pork bill by making it part of the annual military budget bill, dubbed NDAA.

To prove that this is nothing more than corrupt payoffs we need only look at the $10 billion subsidy to Blue Origin. This is a company being directly financed, in the billions, by Bezos himself. It has no shortage of cash. It not only doesn’t need government subsidies, it has never even looked for private investment capital. Bezos has provided it billions from his own pocket, far more cash than SpaceX has ever had on hand.

Yet Bezos is lobbying Democrats for this subsidy, aimed at financing his failed manned lunar lander project that NASA simply doesn’t have the cash to build and also doesn’t want to build because it was a generally weak proposal. From the bill:

This section would require the NASA Administrator to maintain competitiveness within the human landing system by funding design, development, testing, and evaluation for at least two entities. It would also authorize, in addition to amounts otherwise appropriated for the Artemis program, for fiscal years 2021 through 2026, $10.032 billion to NASA to carry out the human landing system program.

In other words, force NASA to award that second manned lunar lander, with Blue Origin almost certainly the winner.

Whether Schumer’s games here will pay off for Bezos remains unknown. I expect most senate Republicans will oppose it (other than the typical RINO fools like Romney). Already Democrats like Bernie Sanders have expressed opposition, as well as at least one children’s lobbying group that appears more aligned with the left than the right.

And even if it passes in the Senate, the House will have to approve, and we can expect ample opposition there from both parties.

Shatner vs today’s America

Shatner vs everyone else
Shatner, on the left, turns away from Bezos and the spray of champagne.

Capitalism in space: The profound, emotional, and thoughtful reaction of William Shatner to his short suborbital flight yesterday on Blue Origin’s New Shepard space capsule contrasted starkly with the crass, rude, and shallow response of his co-passengers and Jeff Bezos.

You can watch Shatner’s comments right after landing at the video at the link. Watch how he tries to express his thoughts to Bezos immediately, and is almost ignored as Bezos and the others instead want to spritz champagne at each other. Shatner turns away, almost in disgust. The screen capture to the right shows him turning away, not because he doesn’t want to be hit by champagne but because he doesn’t want that shallowness to steal from him the emotions he now feels.

Eventually Bezos realizes Shatner is going to say his peace, and that he better pay attention. Shatner, almost in tears, struggles to note how shocked he was at the relative thinness of the atmosphere. To him, the rocket so quickly zipped out of a blue sky into blackness. As he said,

“This air, which is keeping us alive, is thinner than your skin. It’s a sliver. It’s immeasurably small when you think in terms of the universe.

…”What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine. I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened … it’s extraordinary. I hope I never recover, that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it. It’s so much larger than me and life.”

Shatner is an actor. For him, the emotion is the most important thing, as that is what he has specialized in expressing on screen to others for his entire life. At this moment, however, he was not expressing the emotions of a imaginary character he was creating on screen, but his own personal emotions. He managed to do it, in the best way possible. God speed William Shatner. We shall miss you when you are gone.

That Bezos was so unprepared for this moment from Shatner was very unfortunate. It made him look very shallow and foolish, which is a shame because, as Shatner so correctly noted, Bezos was the one who made that moment possible.

Shatner, at ninety years of age, is of a different more civilized generation that believed strongly in applying thought to one’s emotions, rather than letting those emotions rule. The contrast between him and all the younger people in this clip gives us a clear snapshot of an America now gone, replaced by the thoughtless emotional America of today.

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.

Former Blue Origin employee blasts company for sexism and safety issues

Food fight! While the past two days have been filled with silly back-and-forth barbs between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, none of which really matters (which is why I haven’t posted anything about it here), today came the publication of a long scree by a former Blue Origin employee blasting the company for sexism and safety issues.

The rant by Alexandra Abrams, former head of Blue Origin Employee Communications, claims it is co-signed by twenty other present and former Blue Origin employees, but provides no information as who those individuals are. The accusations themselves are all hearsay, since Abrams simply recounts experiences of unnamed others, without any documentation.

Could there be management problems at Blue Origin? Certainly. The real evidence in the past five years suggests that CEO Bob Smith has not done well to get the company off the ground. Not only has Blue Origin accomplished little under his tenure, employees are apparently not happy there, with many fleeing the company.

Abrams’ rant however comes off more like she is a disgruntled former employee who was let go because she was pushing social justice issues rather than focusing on getting her job done. Her use of worn leftist phrases like “climate justice” and “gender gaps” suggests this strongly. The response from Blue Origin to her essay reinforces that impression, noting that she was fired for doing things that could have gotten Blue Origin shut down by the federal government:

Ms. Abrams was dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations.

If so, and Blue Origin would not say this publicly if it wasn’t true, Abrams misconduct could have been very serious indeed. Moreover, as noted at this last link, she was the head of the company’s employee communications department, a division that shouldn’t really be involved in such issues anyway.

This whole kerfuffle reminds me of a similar affair at SpaceX several years ago. A disgruntled former employee made all sorts of similar charges, sued, and lost. I expect a similar result here.

Both companies are in the business of building rockets. Their goal is not “gender equality” or “climate justice”. If that becomes any employee’s first priority, as it appears might have been the case with Abrams, that employee has got to be culled from the company, as that person will only become a cancer that will destroy what everyone else there is trying to accomplish.

Amazon protests SpaceX’s Starlink plan to FCC

Amazon on August 25, 2021 filed a protest with the FCC against SpaceX’s proposed expansion of its Starlink constellation that would allow almost 30,000 satellites to be launched.

“Should the Commission depart from its rules and precedent and endorse the approach of applying for multiple, mutually exclusive configurations, the consequences will extend far beyond the SpaceX Amendment,” wrote Mariah Shuman, corporate counsel for Amazon’s broadband megaconstellation venture Project Kuiper, in an Aug. 25 letter to the FCC. “However inefficient this strategy might be for the Commission and parties responding to applications, other prospective licensees will surely see the benefit in maximizing their optionality by describing multiple configurations in their license applications.”

Shuman asked the FCC to “dismiss SpaceX’s Amendment, and invite SpaceX to resubmit its amendment after settling on a single configuration for its Gen2 System.”

It appears Amazon does not want the FCC to approve multiple proposed satellite configurations put forth by SpaceX in a single application. Instead, it wants the FCC to force SpaceX to pick one, and submit that alone. It also appears that doing what Amazon requests would be more in line with past FCC policy.

While Amazon might have a point, the optics once again make another Jeff Bezos’ company look ugly, more interested in using the courts to stymie its competitors than actually launching anything. Amazon’s Kuiper internet constellation was first proposed in early 2019. More than two years have passed and none of its more than 3200 satellites have launched — not even one test satellite — with no clear indication yet on when launches will finally begin.

SpaceX began testing its Starlink system in 2018, and already has about 1,700 operational satellites in orbit. The comparison between the two companies is stark, and not favorable to Amazon.

In fact, Elon Musk was not shy in taking advantage of these optics to note them quite sharply in a tweet yesterday, saying, “Turns out Besos [sic] retired in order to pursue a full-time job filing lawsuits against SpaceX.”

Amazon is not Blue Origin, but both companies were founded by Bezos, and it appears right now that both prefer court battles to rocket engineering.

Top engineers and managers fleeing Blue Origin

According to this story today, Blue Origin this summer lost at least sixteen top management and engineering employees, all leaving in a very short time.

At least 16 key leaders and senior engineers have left Blue Origin this summer, CNBC has learned, with many moving on in the weeks after Bezos’ spaceflight.

…Others quietly updated their LinkedIn pages over the past few weeks. Each unannounced departure was confirmed to CNBC by people familiar with the matter. Those departures include: New Shepard senior vice president Steve Bennett, chief of mission assurance Jeff Ashby (who retired), national security sales director Scott Jacobs, New Glenn senior director Bob Ess, New Glenn senior finance manager Bill Scammell, senior manager of production testing Christopher Payne, New Shepard technical project manager Nate Chapman, senior propulsion design engineer Dave Sanderson, senior HLS human factors engineer Rachel Forman, BE-4 controller lead integration and testing engineer Jack Nelson, New Shepard lead avionics software engineer Huong Vo, BE-7 avionics hardware engineer Aaron Wang, propulsion engineer Rex Gu, and rocket engine development engineer Gerry Hudak.

Those who announced they were leaving Blue Origin did not specify why, but frustration with executive management and a slow, bureaucratic structure is often cited in employee reviews on job site Glassdoor.

There is another possibility that would be more hopeful. It could be that Jeff Bezos is shaking up the company because of its poor accomplishments during the past four years, since CEO Bob Smith was hired.

That Smith however is still there makes this guess unlikely. The article also notes that Smith’s approval among Blue Origin employees is abysmal, with only 15% approving his management, when compared to high numbers given to the management leaders at SpaceX and ULA.

Thus, this exodus is more likely a sign that that the rats are fleeing what they see as a sinking ship.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Blue Origin however. The company is swimming in dough because of Bezos’ deep pockets, and he is free to do what he thinks must be done to fix things. Under such conditions it is very unlikely Blue Origin will disappear. More likely Bezos will straighten things out, though the company now has to play big catch up, not only against SpaceX but also against the fleet of new orbital rocket companies about to come on line — all doing so ahead of Blue Origin.

There is also the possibility that this story has got its facts wrong. It makes a very big error near the beginning, claiming that former SpaceX engineer Lauren Lyons had left Blue Origin to join SpaceX, when she had actually left SpaceX to take a big promotion at Firefly. My mistake. Lyons had moved from SpaceX to Blue Origin. This job change was leaving Blue Origin to go to Firefly.

Hat tip to reader Jay.

Blue Origin files lawsuit against Starship lunar contract award

What a joke: Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin on August 13th filed a lawsuit in federal court, attempting to overthrow the contract award NASA gave SpaceX’s Starship in its manned lunar lander Artemis project

In a court filing on Friday, Blue Origin said it continued to believe that two providers were needed to build the landing system, which will carry astronauts down to the Moon’s surface as early as 2024. It also accused Nasa of “unlawful and improper evaluation” of its proposals during the tender process. “We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America,” Blue Origin said.

The article then goes on to list the basic facts that make this lawsuit absurd. First, NASA had not been appropriated enough money by Congress to award two contracts, and had it done so, it would have violated the law. Second SpaceX’s bid was the lowest bid, far less than Blue Origin’s expensive price. Third, SpaceX was already test flying early prototypes of its Starship lander, while Blue Origin had built nothing. Fourth, many other technical issues made SpaceX’s bid superior.

Finally, the GAO, as an independent arbitrator, has already ruled against a Blue Origin protest, stating unequivocally that NASA had done nothing wrong in its contract process.

This lawsuit makes Blue Origin appear to be a very unserious company. Rather than putting its energies towards building rockets and spacecraft to demonstrate its capabilities, it focuses its effort on playing legal games in the courts. Such behavior will only make it seem less appealling when next it bids on a NASA or Space Force contract.

Blue Origin working to make 2nd stage of New Glenn reusable

Capitalism in space: According to this Ars Technica article by Eric Berger yesterday, Blue Origin has begun working on a project dubbed Jarvis, focused on making the upper stage of its orbital and as yet unlaunched New Glenn rocket reusable.

Bezos had been asking his senior staffers about reusable upper stages, but advisers told him such an approach was unlikely to work, sources said. Bezos also seems to have been told the SpaceX “fail forward” method of rapidly prototyping and testing Starships, with few processes and procedures, would be unlikely to succeed.

However, over the last year, Bezos took note as SpaceX launched and landed its Starship vehicle. This is one of the reasons he decided to initiate a project named “Jarvis” at Blue Origin within the reusable second-stage program. Sources said Bezos has walled off parts of the second-stage development program from the rest of Blue Origin and told its leaders to innovate in an environment unfettered by rigorous management and paperwork processes. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sentences indicate evidence that the management that Bezos brought in to run Blue Origin for him in 2017 was definitely old school big space managers, with limited vision and timid about risk-taking, and that Bezos is beginning to recognize this and shift control of the company away from them.

This is excellent news, and suggests that we shall finally see some real progress at Blue Origin, something that has been lacking for the past four years. It also suggests that Bezos now recognizes he needs to make his rocket competitive with what SpaceX has, and is taking steps to make that happen

Isn’t competition and freedom wondeful? When allowed to flourish it makes things happen fast, and with amazing daring.

Bezos offers to waive $2 billion in payments to get lunar lander contract

In an open letter to NASA administrator Bill Nelson, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos offered to waive $2 billion in payments should NASA decide to switch its contract for building the manned lunar lander contract from SpaceX to the Blue Origin team, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

Blue Origin and its industry partners ⁠— including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper ⁠— bid $6 billion to design and build a competing landing system. After SpaceX won the award, Blue Origin’s team and Dynetics, the third competitor for a NASA contract, filed protests with the Government Accountability Office. The GAO is due to rule on those protests by Aug. 4.

In his letter to Nelson, Bezos revisits the issues laid out in Blue Origin’s protest and complains that NASA “chose to confer a multi-year, multibillion-dollar head start to SpaceX” in the Human Landing System competition. He noted that NASA gave SpaceX a chance to revise its bid to fit NASA’s financial needs, and that Blue Origin wasn’t given a similar opportunity. “That was a mistake, it was unusual, and it was a missed opportunity,” Bezos wrote. “But it is not too late to remedy.”

Bezos then offered to waive all payments in the 2021-2023 fiscal years, up to $2 billion, “to get the program back on track right now.” He said that would be in addition to the $1 billion in corporate contributions that was previously pledged.

The article notes there may be some legal issues blocking such an offer. I also wonder what Blue Origins partners think about this. Has Bezos discussed it with them? Is he offering to cover their profits as well?

We must also be cognizant of one important detail: The Blue Origin team’s proposal lost the bid largely because was ranked below SpaceX’s for both financial and technical reaosns. Even more important, that team’s lander does yet not exist, even in prototype. No significant work has been done. And Blue Origin itself has so far failed to launch anything into orbit, with its orbital rocket New Glenn two years behind schedule. None of this inspires confidence.

SpaceX meanwhile has been test flying its Starship lander in repeated flight tests, demonstrating its capabilities.

Consider this bidding war from a custoner’s perspective. Blue Origin has yet to prove it can build what it promises. SpaceX is already doing so. And it bid less as well.

On August 4th the GAO will rule on the protests of both losers, Blue Origin and Dynetics. Anything can happen, but I strongly expect them to rule in favor of NASA and SpaceX.

And even if they do rule that the contract must be rebid, the bottom line remains: Blue Origin has got to stop trying to win its contracts in the courts, and finally start build the orbital spacecraft and rockets it has been promising for years. I have every faith it can be done. Bezos just has to get his company focused once again in doing so.

Democrat proposes new tax on private manned spaceflight

That didn’t take long! Mere hours after New Shepard completed its first suborbital manned commercial flight, a Democrat in the House of Representatives introduced a bill in Congress to impose a tax on private manned spaceflight.

Oregon Democrat Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, on Tuesday introduced what he is calling the Securing Protections Against Carbon Emissions (SPACE) Tax Act, which would create excise taxes on commercial space flights carrying human passengers for purposes other than scientific research.

“Space travel isn’t a tax free holiday for the wealthy,” Blumenauer wrote on Twitter. “We pay taxes on plane tickets. Billionaires flying into space—producing no scientific value—should do the same, and then some.”

The measure would include a per-passenger tax on the price of a commercial flight to space and a two-tiered excise tax for each launch into space. The first tier would apply to flights between 50 miles and 80 miles above Earth’s surface, while the second “significantly higher” rate would apply to flights more than 80 miles above Earth’s surface.

This typical Democratic Party response to the acheivement of others reminds me of a pertinent quote from Ronald Reagan:

Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.

While Reagan was describing many of the actions of politicans from both parties, the Democratic Party is today particularly abusive. Private enterprise has in the past decade done things in space the government and NASA spent years trying to accomplish, with zero success, while wasting billions of taxpayer dollars. The Democrats resent that success, and are very eager to squelch it. Rather than have any American achievement in space, created by the citizens of the nation and independent of their interference, they would rather destroy it. Even as they extort as much money as they can from it.

Blue Origin completes first commercial suborbital flight

New Shepard just prior to landing
New Shepard just prior to landing.

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin this morning successfully flew its first commercial suborbital flight using its New Shepard spacecraft, taking Jeff Bezos and four other passengers, one paying, to an altitude of 66.5 miles.

The flight lasted just over ten minutes.

I have embedded the video of the flight, cued to just before launch, below the fold. Try to ignore the blather of Blue Origin’s announcer, which fortunately mostly stops once the spacecraft passes 62 miles and enters space. At that point microphones from inside the capsule take over, and you get to hear the reaction of the passengers themselves.

A grand success for Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos. And another grand success for freedom and private enterprise.

Next up, the beginning of regular commercial orbital manned tourist flights, starting in September. Here is the present flight manifest:

  • September 2021: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule flies four private citizens on a three day orbital flight
  • October 2021: The Russians will fly two passengers to ISS to shoot a movie
  • December 2021: The Russians will fly billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant to ISS for 12 days
  • cDecember 2021: Space Adventures, using a Dragon capsule, will fly four in orbit for five days
  • January 2022: Axiom, using a Dragon capsule, will fly four tourists to ISS
  • 2022-2024: Three more Axiom tourist flights on Dragon to ISS
  • 2024: Axiom begins launching its own modules to ISS, starting construction of its own private space station
  • c2024: SpaceX’s Starship takes Yusaku Maezawa and several others on a journey around the Moon.

» Read more

Watching New Shepard’s first manned commercial flight tomorrow

Blue Origin will be live streaming the suborbital flight tomorrow of its New Shepard spacecraft, carrying Jeff and Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and passenger 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, his ticket paid for by his father at an undisclosed price.

The broadcast begins at 7 am (Eastern), with launch scheduled for 9 am (Eastern).

The flight itself will be about about ten to twelve minutes total, expecting to reach an altitude exceeding 67 miles, Though it will fly higher than Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flight last week, which reached about 53.5 miles, it will be far shorter. Because Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft takes off attached to the bottom of an airplane, the flight includes more than an hour of flight time getting up to the right altitude to release the spacecraft.

New Shepard launches from the ground, goes straight up, and reaches its maximum height within minutes.

Which is a better deal? That’s up to you. Since orbital tourist flights are now available and will be launching monthly beginning in September, both of these very short suborbital hops seem much less interesting then they would have only two years ago.

Musk donates more big money to revitalizing downtown Brownsville

It appears that a charitable foundation established by Elon Musk has recently decided to up its donations to the Brownsville Community Improvements Corporation by an extra $1 million, the money aimed at helping to revitalized the downtown of Brownsville, the nearest large city to SpaceX’s Boca Chica spaceport.

The donation was revealed during remarks by Josh Mejia, executive director of the Brownsville Community Improvements Corporation, during a Brownsville developers luncheon .

In his remarks, Mejia, pictured above, gave an update on the e-Bridge Center and other quality of life improvements coming to Brownsville. But, he received the biggest applause when he mentioned inward investment by Elon Musk. “I was texting back and forth with my board members and about 45 minutes ago I receive an email from the Musk Foundation. It is like perfect timing. It is like they know we are here. Well, they just mentioned they donated another million (dollars) towards this program. So, now we have $2 million,” Mejia said. The audience cheered.

This donation is all part of the modern game that requires big business enterprises to make payoffs to local and national politicians and “community activists.” Both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos know this, and are playing the game to hilt. Both know that the politicians and “community activists” have been telling them, “Nice business you got here, shame if something happened to it.” Bezos responded by donating big to DC’s Air & Space museum, while spreading the wealth to many space advocacy groups.

Musk is instead focusing his payoffs to the local community, where it might do the most good for both him and the locals that his business affects. This donation is not the first he has made to Boca Chica, Brownsville, and south Texas. His foundation has also donated $20 million to the county schools, and another $8 million for other downtown Brownsville projects. The results, obviously helped by the business SpaceX is also bringing to the town, have been noticeable.

In the months since Musk pledged his $10 million, at least 10 downtown properties have gone under contract with interested buyers, said real estate broker Bob Torres Jr. Buildings that used to lease for 25 cents a square foot are now leasing for $1 to $1.50 per square foot.

Home prices have increased nationwide due to the pandemic and low inventory. In Brownsville, this trend has been exacerbated by SpaceX. “People are buying houses sight unseen from Washington state, Portland, Oregon,” Torres said. “They’re going above the asking price, which hardly ever happens.” Real estate broker Bruno Zavaleta III had a client drive from Atlanta and buy three houses.

According to the Brownsville/South Padre Island Board of Realtors, the median price for a home in Brownsville was $212,900 in June, up 47 percent from June 2020. To help with inventory, Esperanza Homes is building 675 houses in northern Brownsville. It will develop this master-planned community over the next six to eight years with a nonprofit community housing development organization called “come dream. come build.”

This pumping of donations by Musk to the local community however will not sell well with the mafia in Washington. The money isn’t going to them, and bullies don’t like that, even if the money is really doing good. Bezos understands this. It doesn’t really matter if the money he donates accomplishes anything real. What matters is that he has paid off the thugs who could make big trouble for him in the future.

Right now it is unclear who’s strategy will work best for protecting each company’s interests. Much will hinge on what each company actually accomplishes in the next few years. SpaceX is clearly ahead in this area, but Blue Origin can certainly catch up.

Hat tip Robert Pratt of Pratt on Texas.

Bezos donates $200 million to Air & Space Museum

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin and about to fly on the first commercial suborbital flight of his New Shepard spacecraft, today announced the donation of $200 million to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

The Smithsonian said $70 million of the money would support museum renovations. The other $130 million would go toward building a new education center at the museum called the Bezos Learning Center to inspire students to promote innovation and explore careers in science, math and engineering.

While this is a very gracious and generous act, in the long run it might actually have been better for Bezos to have used this money to get his rocket company off the ground. Success in that manner would be far more effective in inspiring students. Once Blue Origin is actually launching humans into orbit to explore the heavens such a donation might have made better sense. Those student would not only be inspired by the achievement, Bezos would then be providing them a way to join in.

Still, the gift will do much to help maintain the nation’s capabilities in space. Good for Bezos.

Blue Origin distributes $19 million of the $28 million earned for its July 20th suborbital flight

Blue Origin today announced the nineteen non-profits that will receive $1 million each, taken from the $28 million that a single as-yet unnamed person is paying to fly with Jeff Bezos on the first commercial suborbital manned flight of New Shepard on July 20, 2021.

All of the organizations are advocates for space exploration. A majority foster education for the young. Two are pro-women, pushing gender politics in space.

The remaining $9 million will be used by Blue Origin’s non-profit to encourage space-focused curriculum and its project to encourage people to send postcards into suborbital space on its New Shepard spacecraft.

All in all the list of recipients surprised me. I had expected this money to go to many of the very leftist environmental groups that Jeff Bezos loves. Instead, the list is entirely space-focused, though it does tend to favor organizations that mostly aim to maintain the status quo of a big government space program or push for gender or racial politics. That there is a large variety of organizations that push many different approaches to encouraging space exploration however is refreshing.

Nonetheless, except for a few that actually educate children, most are advocacy groups. Compare that to the charity being produced by SpaceX’s first manned commercial flight in September, dubbed Inspiration4. That flight is pumping big bucks directly into St. Jude’s Research Hospital to help it cure children from cancer.

Which do you think is doing more for the world?

FAA approves Blue Origin’s license for commercial suborbital passenger flights

Capitalism in space: The FAA has approved the launch license for Blue Origin, allowing it to fly a commercial suborbital passenger flight using its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft later this month.

The company, founded by the former chief, is approved to conduct space flight missions from its Launch Site One facility in West Texas. The license is valid through August. “To gain license approval to carry humans, Blue Origin was required to verify that its launch vehicle’s hardware and software worked safely and as intended during a test flight,” the FAA said in a statement to FOX Business.

Bezos is scheduled to fly into space on July 20 on New Shepard’s 16th flight. Liftoff is targeted for 8 p.m. CDT, the company said. … The launch date marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bezos assigned himself to the flight just a month ago and asked his brother, Mark, to join him. Accompanying them will be a $28 million auction winner and Wally Funk, one of the last surviving members of the Mercury 13 who was chosen as an “honored guest.”

Expect the same kind of hype surrounding this short suborbital flight that accompanied Richard Branson’s flight this past weekend. The real big deal however will begin in September, when regular orbital tourist flights begin, with one almost every month for the rest of the year.

Today’s blacklisted American: Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos, sentenced to death!
Jeff Bezos: The next target in America’s daily two-minute hate.

They’re coming for you next: As a clear indication of the ugliness of modern society and the eager willingness of far too many Americans to hurt or even kill those they disagree with or do not like, two different petitions have now garnered more than 175,000 signatures demanding that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, be forced to die in space rather than safely return home during his planned July 20th suborbital commercial flight on his New Shepard spacecraft.

The two petitions can be seen here and here. Both have received a lot of media attention, such as these articles in the Guardiane, MSN, and the New York Post, all of which immediately caused the numbers of people signing the petitions to skyrocket. Both petitions are now “one of the top signed on!”
» Read more

Blue Origin sells first tourist seat on New Shepard for $28 million

Capitalism in space: In a live auction today, Blue Origin successfully sold the first tourist seat on the first manned commercial suborbital flight of its New Shepard spacecraft for $28 million. With the additional fee of 6%, the total price was about $29.6 million.

I have embedded the replay of the auction below the fold, cued up to the auction start.

The bidding was amazingly fierce and aggressive, starting at $4.8 million. The final price is quite spectacular, actually $9+ million higher than what Dennis Tito paid to fly to ISS for several days back in the 1990s.

One wonders what SpaceX and Axiom have been charging for their orbital flights. I doubt it is this much. As I watched I wondered if the bidders were considering the time they would spend with Jeff Bezos as part of the value. These are wealthy people, and getting a chance to spend a lot of time with one of the richest men in the world might be far more valuable to them than the flight itself.

Regardless, we will know soon who won the auction, and will fly into space for a few minues or so on July 20th.

» Read more

Investors sue Virgin Galactic for stock fraud

Capitalism in space: A federal complaint has been filed against Virgin Galactic, claiming the company made false and misleading reports concerning its financial state.

Investor Shane Levin and other unnamed plaintiffs claim in their complaint that Virgin Galatic CEO Michael Colglazier, former CEO George Whitesides, CFO Doug Ahrens and former CFO Jon Campagna knowingly presented incorrect financial statements to inflate the company’s stock price and entice buyers.

The lawsuit is seeking class-action status and unspecified damages, in addition to legal fees.

Also today an anonymous source claimed that, assuming Virgin Galactic can get FAA approval, the company has suddenly changed its test flight schedule and is now planning to fly Richard Branson on its SpaceShipTwo Unity spacecraft on July 4th. This would have Branson reach suborbital space about two weeks ahead of Jeff Bezos, who is presently scheduled to fly on a suborbital flight his own New Shepard spacecraft on July 20th.

Branson for almost two decades has promised he would fly on the first commercial operational flight of SpaceShipTwo, while also promising repeatedly that this flight was only months away. All of those promises were bunkum. Now faced with Jeff Bezos grabbing that first flight, Branson is suddenly scrambling to finally get it done, even if it means disrupting Virgin Galactic’s already announced test schedule.

The first story above tells us something about the honesty of Virgin Galactic’s finances. The second story tells us something about the trustworthiness of its management and engineering. I might consider the pace of Blue Origin in the past five years to have been far too slow, but they have at least shown a careful deliberate path to flight. Bezos’ July 20th flight might be a stunt, but it is being done to demonstrate his trust in his product.

Not so much from Branson and Virgin Galactic. For Branson, feeding his ego seems more important.

Bezos to fly on first manned New Shepard suborbital flight in July

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos announced today that he and his brother Mark will be passengers on the first manned commercial New Shepard suborbital flight, now scheduled to launch on July 20th.

“I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure. It’s a big deal for me,” Bezos says in the brief video.

In that video, Bezos asks his younger brother Mark, to accompany him on the flight. “I think it would be meaning to have my brother there,” he said.

Mark Bezos accepted. “I wasn’t even expecting him to say that he was going to be on the first flight,” he said in the video. “And when he asked me to go along, I was just awe-struck.”

Right now the high bid in the auction for the other passenger seat remains stuck at $2.4 million. The bidding ends on June 12 with a live auction instead of an online one, but it appears that whoever bid that amount has no competitors and will be the passenger.

As for Bezos’ flight, his announcement means he will beat out Richard Branson for this honor. Bezos’ victory is especially embarrassing to Branson, who had been promising everyone that he would be the first suborbital passenger on his Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft for almost twenty years. Those promises were bunkum. Bezos meanwhile made no such promises, and will deliver.

If you had to choose between these two car salesmen, who would you pick?

I however would choose neither. These suborbital car salesmen are fighting over the honors to launch what is equivalent to a rowboat. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is meanwhile building the equivalent of an ocean liner (Starshp) even as it is about to launch the equivalent of the first passenger steam ship (Falcon 9 with paying civilian passengers). I pick Musk.

Bernie Sanders throws a wrench into Senate bill forcing NASA to award two lunar lander contracts

Capitalism in space? Senator Bernie Sanders (Socialist/Democrat-Vermont) has submitted a new amendment to the new NASA authorization bill, now being debated in the Senate, that eliminates the earlier changes added by senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) that required NASA to award a contract to a second company for building its manned lunar lander.

This earlier amendment, submitted by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), modified NASA’s Artemis Program. Cantwell’s amendment, in part, called for $10.03 billion in additional funding for NASA to carry out the Human Landing System program. This legislation was filed as Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos were urging Congress to add $10 billion to NASA’s budget—enough money to fully fund the development of a second Human Landing System. It was passed 11 days ago without any debate by the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Sanders’ terse amendment seeks to excise the Cantwell language that provides additional funding for a Human Landing System.

While Sanders’ amendment probably makes more sense based on the money that Congress has actually appropriated for this task, he didn’t do it for that reason. More likely he did it as a petty attack on Jeff Bezos, whose company Blue Origin was likely expected to win that second contract.

Nothing is settled yet of course. The bill still has to pass the Senate and also be approved by the House, then signed by the president. Much will change before then.

Regardless, isn’t nice how NASA’s modern space effort is so well designed by our senators and congressmen? What would we do without them?

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