Eric M Johnson –
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 said.
The urgency centres 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 finalising 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 authorised 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.
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 US Department of Defence.