The battle of space billionaires steps up another gear as Jeff Bezos ‘throws cash’ at Blue Origin

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Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is racing to pull his private space company out of start-up mode and move into production amid signals that his firm


Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is racing to pull his private space company out of start-up mode and move into production amid signals that his firm’s heavy rocket set for lift-off in 2020 may slip behind schedule, according to people familiar with the project.

Blue Origin has added hundreds of engineers over the past three years and continues to ramp up in an expansion that one employee described as ‘hyperbolic.’ 

The Kent, Washington-based company is looking to double its current workforce to around 3,000 employees over the next two to three years, a top customer told Reuters.

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Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is racing to pull his private space company out of start-up mode and move into production amid signals that his firm's heavy rocket set for lift-off in 2020 may slip behind schedule

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is racing to pull his private space company out of start-up mode and move into production amid signals that his firm’s heavy rocket set for lift-off in 2020 may slip behind schedule

The urgency centers on a rocket dubbed New Glenn. 

The heavy-launch vehicle, which Bezos promises will be able to haul satellites and, eventually, people into orbit, is central to the company’s hopes of winning lucrative military and commercial contracts.

New Glenn’s first-stage booster will be reusable, a key piece of Bezos’ strategy to lower costs and increase the frequency of launches. Blue Origin executives have stated publicly that test flights will begin within two years.

But whether Blue Origin can hit that mark remains to be seen.

With the clock ticking on 2020, company engineers are still finalizing details on New Glenn’s design and just beginning to build model components that must be put through extreme testing, people familiar with the project said. 

They requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

Blue Origin has privately acknowledged in conversations with French satellite firm Eutelsat SA – its first New Glenn customer – that its 2020 time frame is ‘very aggressive,’ a person with direct knowledge of talks between the companies said.

The firms have padded their contract, which covers the launch of a geostationary satellite in the period 2021-2022, so that Blue Origin will incur no penalties if it is late, the person added.

Yohann Leroy, Eutelsat’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer, declined to discuss details of his company’s contract with Blue Origin, but said he was optimistic New Glenn will be ready to carry his firm’s satellite by the end of 2022.

‘Of course, I cannot guarantee that they will respect their initial timeline, but we are confident that they will not be very far from it,’ Leroy said.

A Blue Origin spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment about the company’s hiring practices, strategy or competitive challenges. 

The private firm has been tight-lipped on New Glenn’s production status and plans for bringing it to market.

Mounting a successful test in 2020 would give Blue Origin its best shot at fending off competing rockets and new ones expected to enter the market in the next few years, analysts said.

Rivals include aerospace stalwarts United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin ; and France’s ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran. Japan and China are likewise designing reusable rockets.

But 18 years after its founding, Blue Origin has found itself lagging a competitor closer to home: SpaceX.

Blue Origin has privately acknowledged in conversations with French satellite firm Eutelsat SA - its first New Glenn customer - that its 2020 time frame is 'very aggressive,' a person with direct knowledge of talks between the companies said

Blue Origin has privately acknowledged in conversations with French satellite firm Eutelsat SA - its first New Glenn customer - that its 2020 time frame is 'very aggressive,' a person with direct knowledge of talks between the companies said

Blue Origin has privately acknowledged in conversations with French satellite firm Eutelsat SA – its first New Glenn customer – that its 2020 time frame is ‘very aggressive,’ a person with direct knowledge of talks between the companies said

WHO IS JEFF BEZOS?

Jeff Bezos is best known as the founder and CEO of online giant Amazon. 

Born in New Mexico and raised in Houston, Texas, he went on to attend the prestigious Princeton University and graduated in 1986. 

After a decade or so of work on Wall Street, Mr Bezos founded his own company in 1994.

Jeff Bezos was born in 1964 and is founder and CEO of Amazon. He is also the richest person in the world 

Jeff Bezos was born in 1964 and is founder and CEO of Amazon. He is also the richest person in the world 

Jeff Bezos was born in 1964 and is founder and CEO of Amazon. He is also the richest person in the world 

He initially called his company Cadabra, and then reportedly changed the name to Amazon when a colleague misheard it as ‘cadaver’.

Initially, it was launched as an online book store working out of Bezo’s garage in Seattle but rapidly grew to include a variety of goods and services. 

Now, Amazon is one of the biggest companies in the world and the most successful website in the world.

In 2018, the company is worth around $900 (£691 billion).

Mr Bezos himself has an estimated net worth of $150 billion (£115 billion).

He has bought and accumulated a variety of different companies and outlets including: Whole Foods, The Washington Post, Twitch and IMDB. 

He has a controlling share of 17 per cent in his first company, Amazon. 

In 2017, Jeff Bezos surpassed Bill Gates to become the richest person in the world, and the richest person of the modern world. 

He has been married since 1994 and has four children.  

Founded by Tesla Inc Chief Executive Elon Musk, the Hawthorne, California-based company has upended the space industry with its relatively low-cost reusable Falcon 9 rockets. 

SpaceX has completed more than 50 successful Falcon launches and snagged billions of dollars’ worth of contracts, including deals with NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.

SpaceX in February transfixed a global audience with the successful test launch of its newest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket in the world.

Musk had predicted ‘game over’ for other makers of heavy rockets if his launch succeeded.

Bezos promises the heavy launch vehicle will be able to haul satellites and, eventually, people into orbit

Bezos promises the heavy launch vehicle will be able to haul satellites and, eventually, people into orbit

Bezos promises the heavy launch vehicle will be able to haul satellites and, eventually, people into orbit

The good news for Blue Origin is that demand for satellite launch services is projected to soar.

Around 800 small satellites are expected to launch annually beginning around 2020, more than double the annual average over the past decade, according to Marco Caceres, senior space analyst with Fairfax, Virginia-based Teal Group.

‘If New Glenn can be ready in the next two years (Blue Origin) may be able to seize that window of opportunity,’ he said.

ROCKET SCIENCE

Like Musk, Bezos is passionate about the prospect of humans living and working in space.

Now the world’s richest man, thanks to the success of online retailer Amazon, Bezos has been liquidating $1 billion of its stock annually to fund his interplanetary dreams.

He set up Blue Origin in a warehouse some 20 miles (32 km) south of Seattle. The company’s Latin motto means ‘step by step ferociously,’ a reference to Bezos’ belief that success comes through steady, incremental progress.

But after nearly two decades, and with the private space race heating up, Bezos is intent on moving closer to commercialization, three Blue Origin employees told Reuters.

Part of those efforts include selling sightseeing trips to the edge of space aboard another Blue Origin rocket dubbed the New Shepard, with ticket prices in the $200,000-$300,000 range.

Blue Origin also is vying to supply its BE-4 engine to United Launch Alliance to power its forthcoming Vulcan rocket, ULA said.

The recent hiring binge has focused mainly on throwing talent at the New Glenn, and has included more than 60 engineers who worked previously for SpaceX.

THE BILLIONAIRE SPACE RACE: THE DETAILS

Jeff Bezos in front of Blue Origin's space capsule

Jeff Bezos in front of Blue Origin's space capsule

Jeff Bezos in front of Blue Origin’s space capsule

Jeff Bezos’ space tourism project with Blue Origin is competing with a similar programme in development by Space X, the rocket firm founded and run by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and Virgin Galactic, backed by Richard Branson.

Bezos revealed in April 2017 that he finances Blue Origin with around $1 billion (£720 million) of Amazon stock each year.

The system consists of a pressurised crew capsule atop a reusable ‘New Shepard’ booster rocket. 

The richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos is pursuing Blue Origin with vigour as he tries to launch his ‘New Glenn’ rocket into low-Earth orbit by 2020.  

Whilst Bezos is yet to leave the atmosphere of Earth, despite several successful launches, Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme has already sent the Falcon Heavy rocket into space.

On February 6 2018, SpaceX sent the rocket towards the orbit of Mars, 140 million miles away. 

On board was a red Tesla roadster that belonged to Musk himself.

Elon Musk with his Dragon Crew capsule

Elon Musk with his Dragon Crew capsule

Elon Musk with his Dragon Crew capsule

SpaceX have won several multi-million dollar contracts from Nasa as the space agency hopes to use the rockets as a fast-track for its colonisation of the red planet. 

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic recently successfully conducted a test flight of the Virgin Galactic’s Unity spaceplane.   

The flight accelerated to over 1,400 miles per hour (Mach 1.87).

Calling space ‘tantalisingly close’, Branson also said last year that suborbital space in test flights could be happening by this spring. 

More than 700 affluent customers to date, including celebrities Brad Pitt and Katy Perry, have reserved a $250,000 (£200,000) seat on one of Virgin’s space trips, 

The billionaire mogul also said he expects Elon Musk to win the race to Mars with his private rocket firm SpaceX. 

Richard Branson with the Virgin Galactic craft

Richard Branson with the Virgin Galactic craft

Richard Branson with the Virgin Galactic craft

SpaceShipTwo will carry six passengers and two pilots. Each passenger gets the same seating position with two large windows – one to the side and one overhead.

The space ship is 60ft long with a 90inch diameter cabin allowing maximum room for the astronauts to float in zero gravity.

A climb to 50,000ft before the rocket engine ignites. Passengers become ‘astronauts’ when they reach the Karman line, the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere, at which point SpaceShipTwo separates from its carrier aircraft, White Knight II.

The spaceship will then make a sub-orbital journey with approximately six minutes of weightlessness, with the entire flight lasting approximately 3.5 hours.  

Blue Origin’s workforce of more than 1,500 has more than doubled from its early 2016 levels, three employees said. Its ranks are expected to double again by the time New Glenn is flying, Eutelsat’s Leroy said. By comparison, SpaceX has more than 6,000 employees.

Bezos’ company has also invested more than $200 million in a rocket-making facility near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Still, Leroy said he expects to see a New Glenn prototype no sooner than mid-2019.

In the meantime, NASA, the U.S. Air Force and satellite companies are directing business to SpaceX.

Matt Desch, Chief Executive Officer of McLean, Virginia-based Iridium Communications Inc, SpaceX’s largest commercial customer, told Reuters that Blue Origin ‘has been a little less clear’ about its strategy.

‘Nobody disputes that with the investment they’re making they won’t eventually be successful, but how and when they become reliable is still uncertain,’ Desch said.

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