How did Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin fail to dominate the billionaire space race?

The billionaire space race is just a name. SpaceX is not the only one.
Elon Musk's company was the first to send a rocket booster into space and return it safely. Only SpaceX has successfully landed a rocket as large as a 15-story building on a drone ship at the bottom of the ocean. SpaceX is the only company that has taken both Nasa astronauts as well as private citizens to orbit. SpaceX produces thousands of its own communication satellites, each year. SpaceX is the only company that can launch thousands of its own table-sized communication satellites every week. It has also the ability to double the number in orbit in a matter of two years. Only SpaceX is launching the prototypes for the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship, which is designed to transport humans to the Moon.

SpaceX's dominance in the rocket industry is not as you might expect.

Today's commercial space sector has more innovation than ever before. The launch services sector is especially competitive. Relativity Space is creating the first 3D-printed rocket in the world and plans to make robot-powered rockets for Mars. Virgin Orbit launches a rocket under the wing of an jumbo jet to put satellites in orbit. Virgin Galactic is its sister company and fly people to the edge space using an air-launched spaceplan. RocketLab developed the first rocket engine with an electric pump. Now, they are trying to catch it in the air using a net attached to a helicopter.

Blue Origin was another story, which made headlines around the world for several days with its launch of William Shatner, Star Trek actor, briefly into space.

After they flew into space on Wednesday, near Van Horn, Texas, Audrey Powers and Chris Boshuizen landed on the Blue Origins New Shepard's landing pad. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Blue Origin is the rocket company that was expected to achieve a similar level of technological accomplishment to SpaceX. In 2000, Jeff Bezos, the ex-Amazon CEO, founded Blue Origin. This was just two years after SpaceX opened in California. Blue Origin was the first company to launch a rocket over the Krmn Line in 2015 and then land it again. Although it isn't as difficult as returning a rocket from orbit, as Musk taunted Bezos about in the past, it was still an important milestone in the history private space exploration. And, unlike Musk's taunts, Bezos knows exactly what it is like to ride on his rocket.

Blue Origin was founded by Bezos with visionary goals. Bezos was inspired by Gerard K ONeill (Princeton futurist), and he hopes to move heavy industry from Earth into space in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Bezos wants to create an extra-terrestrial economy in which thousands of people live and work in space. His company is working with top defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to build a rocket that can carry astronauts to the Moon. It has built the world's most powerful rocket engine and signed contracts with United Launch Alliance to supply its next-generation Vulcan rocket engine.

It's clear that Bezos is a visionary. It begs the question: Why can't the second-richest man in the world do it?

Jeff Bezos, William Shatner, Van Horn, Texas on Wednesday. Blue Origin/EPA Photograph

Blue Origins masterplan has been unravelling over the past few decades. Blue Origin was left in the dust after SpaceX won its contract for a lunar lander. The US government is being sued by Blue Origin to rescind the award. The lost contract has caused a significant exodus in engineering talent, further extending its already lengthy delays. Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine has not been able to produce its full potential and the launch of ULAs Vulcan rocket is now scheduled for late 2022. This will mean that the first flight of this engine will be five years late than planned.

The first flight of the company's New Glenn rocket, which is a heavy launch vehicle capable lifting nearly 100,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit, was delayed until late 2022. It was originally intended to fly last year. Bezos did not get the honor of being the first billionaire in space to launch his own rocket. Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's own spaceplane pilot, completed a suborbital flight just two weeks before Bezos flew into space.

How is this possible? Blue Origin has thousands of top rocket engineers around the globe. Blue Origin also has an almost unlimited amount of money. Blue Origin is funded by Bezos who, at just over $200bn in value, spends $1bn per year from his own pockets. Blue Origin should be the most successful company in space.

Blue Origin has everything it takes to succeed and become something truly extraordinary, stated Ally Abrams (ex-head of Blue Origin employee communications), who recently wrote a whistleblower essay about safety concerns at Blue Origin and rampant sexism. The engineers truly believed this and work every day to make it a reality, despite leadership intervention.

Blue Origins New Shepard Rocket blasts off in Texas near Van Horn on Wednesday Blue Origin/Reuters Photograph

Abrams says Blue Origins problems have both a cultural and technical dimension. Abrams stated that Blue Origins has a lot of technical debtengineering problems. This is a result Abrams's insistence on speed and choosing the quickest solution over the best. This has made it less able to address the launch vehicle issues properly. Blue Origin's exodus of top engineers from Blue Origin was explained by Abrams as engineers tired of trying to fix problems.

While technical debt is something that most companies face, it's not a problem at Blue. Abrams stated that Blue has an extraordinary level of technical debt. It failed to transform from an R&D firm to a production business.

Abrams partly attributes the growing technical debt to Blue Origins increasing emphasis on speed. This irony is for a company whose motto was Gradatim Ferociter (Latin: step by step, ferociously). She dates the increasing pressure to accelerate to 2017, when SpaceX was clearly failing to keep up with it. She stated that Bezos' growing indifference to the speed of development was evident, along with his jealousy for billionaires making more progress than he was.

Abrams stated that the schedule was a joke in the company. The dates were advertised externally, and employees would be amused because it was impossible.

Many engineers were afraid to raise safety and quality concerns in fear of being retaliated against. This is very frightening when you are working on an experimental vehicle with high risks. Ally Abrams

Blue Origin was not only plagued by engineering problems.

Abrams wrote about a company in which executives display inappropriate behavior towards women and where dissenting voices are actively suppressed. Abrams claims that Blue Origins culture problems began at the top and swept down to all levels of the company. According to Abrams, Blue Origins CEO Bob Smith, who was appointed by Bezos in 2017 to lead the company, repeatedly failed to listen and address concerns of employees about safety and toxic workplace culture.

Abrams stated that Bob Smith is among the most inept leaders I've ever seen. His presence causes passion to wane. Many engineers were afraid to raise safety and quality concerns in fear of being retaliated against. This is very frightening when you are working on an experimental vehicle with high risk.

Twenty Blue Origin employees, current or former, signed Abrams' whistleblower essay. The company denied many of the allegations.

Blue Origin stated that Abrams had been dismissed for repeatedly warning it about issues involving federal export controls regulations. It also said that it has no tolerance for harassment and discrimination and believes that its New Shepard rocket, which is considered the most safest, was the best space vehicle ever built or designed.

It is extremely difficult and painful for me to hear claims that try to characterize our entire staff in a way that doesnt align to the character and capabilities that I see every day at Blue Origin, Smith wrote in an email to Blue Origin employees earlier in the month. Any member of Team Blue is welcome to contact me at any time with any questions.

Blue Origin employees are still vocal. An investigation by the Washington Post earlier this week echoed Abrams' concerns and revealed a picture that showed an organization plagued with distrust in its leadership, sexism, and insufficient concern about the safety of its launch vehicle.

Blue Origin's future depends on whether its culture can be transformed to fulfill its mission. Many observers, including Abrams are skeptical. Perhaps a shift is coming. Bezos, who was previously Amazon's CEO, resigned earlier this year and said he would spend more time on Blue Origin. It remains to be seen if Bezos will bring back the company's culture through his vision for human space exploration, and a sense that there is a common purpose.

Abrams said that there will be much work and healing involved if they are able to put together a strong leadership team that is willing to move forward in a new direction. It would take many years for the scar tissue with employees to heal.

One thing is certain: Bezos won't be able to build the rockets necessary to reach space. That may prove costly for his colonies.