Blue Origin was like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in Roald Dahl’s children’s book for almost two decades.
It was a rocket company founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the billionaire who founded Amazon. So much was known. What the company actually did was mysterious.
“But everyone wanted to get in,” laughed Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, an aerospace consultancy.
Mr Bezos announced Tuesday that he would step down as Amazon’s chief executive and become executive chairman this summer. In his letter to Amazon employees, he said he wanted to invest time and energy in other passions and listed Blue Origin among them.
The coming years promise a lot for Blue Origin – flying tourists on short suborbital excursions, launching satellites on a new rocket, developing a lunar lander for NASA.
Does that mean Mr Bezos will have a bigger daily role in his missile company?
“If Jeff were to spend more time at Blue Origin in the next phase of his career, it would be a very good thing for Blue,” said Rob Meyerson, who was Blue Origin President from 2003 to 2017. “He brings great intelligence, great operational know-how and great passion for the business.”
Mr. Meyerson noted that Mr. Bezos’ other endeavors include the Bezos Earth Fund, which granted the Environmental Defense Fund a $ 100 million grant last year to build and operate a methane detection satellite. Amazon, in which Mr. Bezos will continue to be involved, is developing the Kuiper project, a constellation of satellites to transmit Internet services to earth.
“It’s clear that space is going to be an important issue,” said Meyerson.
Mr. Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 – two years before Elon Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX.
But while Mr. Musk and SpaceX have already built a thriving business – putting satellites and NASA astronauts into orbit and developing a giant rocket called the Starship that will one day take people to Mars – Blue Origin seems to be lagging behind.
In the beginning, the company only offered news occasionally. Reporters would call Blue Origin’s public relations firm to get a superficial “disapproved statement” from the company.
In November 2006, a rubber-shaped test vehicle successfully lifted a modest 285 feet in the air and then gently returned to the ground at a test site in West Texas. Mr Bezos reported on the success in a blog post on the Blue Origin website – a month and a half later.
There were no further updates for four and a half years until Mr Bezos confirmed that a test vehicle had crashed, but only after the Wall Street Journal reported the bug.
Over the years, Blue Origin became less secret. Five years ago, Mr. Bezos welcomed a group of reporters for a tour of the company’s headquarters in Kent, Washington, a few miles south of Seattle. During lunch he was happy to answer questions. “It’s my pleasure,” he said then. “I hope you can feel that I like this.”
Since then, Blue Origin has grown rapidly. It has a NASA contract to develop a lander that could bring astronauts to the surface of the moon in a few years. The company sells rocket engines to another rocket company, United Launch Alliance. Customers need to conduct scientific experiments with New Shepard, a suborbital spacecraft.
But these are so far modest. Blue Origin hasn’t yet started sales for New Shepard’s main business – bringing tourists to the edge of space on short trips – or even had people on board on one of their previous test flights.
New Glenn, a larger rocket that would compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 workhorse, won’t make its maiden flight until later this year.
“They have big plans, but they still have to actually launch people aboard one of their ships,” said Laura Seward Forczyk, owner of Astralytical, a space consultancy.
Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos have regularly argued over their missiles and whether humans should aim at Mars – Mr. Musk’s ultimate target – or build free-floating colonies like Mr. Bezos envisions.
In an interview with Maureen Dowd last year, Mr. Musk praised Mr. Bezos and Blue Origin slightly: “The progress is too slow and the number of years left is insufficient, but I’m glad he’s doing what he’s doing with Blue Origin does. “
That doesn’t necessarily mean Blue Origin is way behind.
During his tour with reporters in 2016, Mr. Bezos pointed to a picture in the central area of headquarters. It showed two turtles holding an hourglass and looking up toward the cosmos. Below was the Blue Origin motto: Gradatim ferociter, Latin for “step by step, wild”.
Blue Origin could hope to turn out to be the turtle of the fable, where slowly and steadily the fast rabbit finally wins. Mr Bezos’ fortune – he sold billions of dollars in Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin – has enabled Blue Origin to follow a methodical, long-term plan without generating large amounts of revenue in the short term.
Mr Bezos has spoken in greater detail about a future where millions of people live and work in space. The goal of Blue Origin is to help people get there.
“We’re going to build a road to space,” said Bezos during a 2019 presentation when he unveiled a design for a lunar lander. “And then amazing things will happen.”
Blue Origin now has a rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, and huge facilities right outside NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to assemble the New Glenn rockets.
In 2016, Mr Bezos said he spent one day a week at Blue Origin. Despite studying electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton as a student, Mr. Bezos let his engineers talk to reporters about the technical aspects of the Blue Origin spacecraft.
In contrast, with the title of Chief Engineer, Mr. Musk delves deeply into technical details at SpaceX, even though Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer, handles much of the day-to-day details of the company.
With Blue Origin moving from research and development to sales and profits, this may be the ideal time to bring someone on board with Amazon’s business successes.
“He’s a businessman who knows how to make money,” said Ms. Christensen. “Maybe this is when it’s just too tempting to stay away.”
She added, “Amazon was like no other company before. If Jeff Bezos really does spend more time on Blue, I wonder if it will be like no other start-up company before that. “