Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin shedding high expertise throughout NASA lander battle

Jeff Bezos, owner of Blue Origin, unveils a new lunar module called the Blue Moon during an event at the Washington Convention Center on May 9, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Mark Wilson | Getty Images

Jeff Bezos flew into space late last month, but his company has lost top talent since the billionaire space founder returned to Earth.

At least 17 key executives and senior engineers left Blue Origin this summer, CNBC learned, and many will follow suit in the weeks to Bezos’ space travel.

Two of the engineers, Nitin Arora and Lauren Lyons, have announced jobs at other space companies this week: Elon Musks SpaceX and Firefly aerospace, respectively.

Others have been quietly updating their LinkedIn pages over the past few weeks.

Any unannounced departure has been confirmed to CNBC by people familiar with the matter. Those departures include: Steve Bennett, Senior Vice President of New Shepard, Jeff Ashby, Head of Mission Assurance (who has retired), Scott Jacobs, Sales Director for National Security, Bob Ess, Senior Director of New Glenn, Tod Byquist , Senior Director of the First Tier of New Glenn, Senior Finance of New Glenn 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 didn’t say why, but frustration with management and a slow, bureaucratic structure are often cited in employee reviews on the Glassdoor job site.

A company spokesperson highlighted Blue Origin’s growth in a statement to CNBC.

“Blue Origin grew by 850 employees in 2020 and we have grown another 650 in 2021 so far. In fact, we’ve almost quadrupled in the past three years. We continue to occupy important management positions in manufacturing. , Quality, engine design and vehicle design. We are building a team and we have great talent, “said the spokesman.

Some of the retired engineers were part of Blue Origin’s astronaut lunar lander program. Bezos’ company lost its bid for a valuable NASA development contract in April when SpaceX was announced as the only award winner under the Space Agency’s Human Landing System program, receiving a $ 2.9 billion contract.

But even though the Government Accountability Office last month rejected Blue Origin’s protest against NASA’s decision, the company has further escalated its fight to participate in the HLS program. Blue Origin launched for the first time a PR offensive against SpaceX’s Starship Missile and then NASA sued in federal court on Monday.

A $ 10,000 bonus

Jeff Bezos pops champagne after emerging from the New Shepard capsule after his space flight on July 20, 2021.

Blue origin

The company has nearly 4,000 employees in the United States, with headquarters in Kent, Washington, near Seattle, and offices in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Van Horn, Texas; and Huntsville, Alabama.

Ten days after Bezos’ space flight on July 20, Blue Origin gave all of its full-time employees an unconditional cash bonus of $ 10,000, several people familiar with the situation told CNBC. None of Blue Origin’s contractors received it. The company confirmed the bonus, with a spokesperson saying it was intended as a “thank you” for reaching the milestone of getting humans into space.

Two people told CNBC that the bonus was perceived internally as an attempt by corporate management to persuade talent to stay in response to the number of employees who filed resignations after the introduction.

A look at Glassdoor reveals a marked difference in employee satisfaction with the leadership of Blue Origin compared to that of other leading space companies. According to Glassdoor, only 15% of Blue Origin employees approve of CEO Bob Smith – up from 91% for Elon Musk at SpaceX or 77% for Tory Bruno at the United Launch Alliance.

The HLS fight

A model of the crew lander at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in August 2020.

Blue origin

NASA’s Human Landing System program is one of the critical parts of the agency’s plan, known as Artemis, to return US astronauts to the lunar surface.

Last year NASA awarded nearly $ 1 billion in concept development contracts for HLS – SpaceX received $ 135 million, Read‘Subsidiary Dynetics receives $ 253 million and Blue Origin receives $ 579 million. The space agency then expected to award two of these three companies for hardware development contracts this year. However, after a lack of requested funding for HLS from Congress, NASA decided to only give SpaceX a contract worth about $ 2.9 billion.

Blue Origin and Dynetics each quickly filed protests with the US Government Accountability Office, which stopped NASA’s work on the program until the protests could be resolved. GAO confirmed NASA’s decision on July 30th. On August 16, Blue Origin went one step further, sue NASA in federal court.

NASA has paid $ 300 million of its SpaceX contract to date, with payment being made on the day GAO declined to protest. However, the space agency’s work on HLS has again been suspended – this time due to Blue Origin’s lawsuit, according to court records on Thursday – and will not resume until November 1.

Big delays

Billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos will launch with three crew members aboard a New Shepard missile on the world’s first unattended suborbital flight from Blue Origin Launch Site 1 near Van Horn, Texas on July 20, 2021.

Joe Skipper | Reuters

Blue Origin has struggled to execute several large programs since Bezos hired Smith as CEO in 2017. Bezos founded the company in 2000 with the aim of “creating a future where millions of people in space live and work to help the earth”. Delays – although common in the industry where the adage “space is tough” is persistently heard – have pushed Bezos’ vision back. highlighted by the departure of Blue Origin’s Chief Operating Officer late last year.

Bezos launched to the edge of space as one of the members of the first crew aboard the reusable New Shepard rocket. Although the company didn’t disclose pricing, New Shepard is competing with it Virgo galactic in suborbital space tourism, with Blue Origin selling nearly $ 100 million worth of tickets for future passenger flights. Although New Shepard’s first crewed launch was a resounding success, Blue Origin leadership had previously expected the rocket to begin human launching by the end of 2017.

An artist’s illustration of a New Glenn rocket on the launch pad in Florida.

Blue origin

BE-4 engine test at Blue Origin launch facility in West Texas.

Blue origin

Blue Origin’s third major program is its stable rocket engine, led by the BE-4, which will propel its New Glenn rocket. The company previously said its BE-4 engines would be “ready to fly in 2017”.

However, four years later, development issues and a lack of hardware for testing mean Blue Origin has not yet shipped its first aircraft engines. ArsTechnica reports earlier this month. The company is pushing to have two BE-4 engines ready by the end of this year. BE-4s in particular are important beyond Blue Origin because ULA signed a contract to use the engines to power their Vulcan missilesPrefer Blue Origin Aerojet Rocketdyne as its supplier. ULA is pushing to have its first Vulcan rocket ready for launch by the end of this year, and Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines are expected to be one – if not the – last piece to be added before launch.

Bezos has spent most of the time focusing on over the past two decades Amazonbut on the way has steadily sold parts of its stake in the tech giant to Fund the development of Blue Origin – to the $ 1 billion a year, or possibly more. Last month, Bezos resigned as CEO of Amazon, with many in the space industry expecting him to focus more on his space business.

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Authorities denies Bezos’ Blue Origin protest over NASA HLS contract

Jeff Bezos, owner of Blue Origin, unveils a new lunar module called the Blue Moon during an event at the Washington Convention Center on May 9, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Mark Wilson | Getty Images

The US government accountability office on Friday rejected protests from companies affiliated with it Jeff Bezos that NASA has wrongly awarded a lucrative lunar lander contract exclusively to astronauts Elon Musks SpaceX.

The complaints were filed by Jeff Bezos ‘Blue Origin and Leidos’ subsidiary Dynetics.

“NASA did not violate public procurement laws or regulations when it decided to award only one award … the evaluation of all three proposals was reasonable and in line with applicable public procurement laws, regulations and the terms of the announcement,” said Kenneth. , Managing Associate General Counsel of GAO Patton wrote in a statement.

The GAO ruling supports the Space Agency’s surprise announcement in April that NASA has placed an order with SpaceX valued at approximately $ 2.9 billion. SpaceX was likely to compete with Blue Origin and Dynetics for two contracts before NASA awarded a single contract due to a lower allocation to the program from Congress.

NASA, in a statement, said the GAO decision will enable the agency “to set a schedule for the first manned landing on the moon in more than 50 years”.

“As soon as possible, NASA will provide an update on the way forward for Artemis, the human landing system, and the return of mankind to the moon. We will continue to work with the Biden administration and Congress to secure funding for a robust and sustainable approach. “For the nation’s return to the moon in collaboration with US trading partners,” the US space agency said.

A spokesperson for Blue Origin told CNBC that the company still believes that “there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but GAO couldn’t address it due to its limited jurisdiction.”

“We will continue to advocate two immediate vendors as we believe this is the right solution,” said Blue Origin. “The Human Landing System program must have competition now instead of later – that is the best solution for NASA and the best solution for our country.”

SpaceX and Dynetics did not respond to CNBC requests for comment. For his part, Musk commented on the GAO’s decision in a tweet with a single emoji for the flexing arm.

NASA decision

Prototype spacecraft rocket SN15 launches from Boca Chica, Texas.

SpaceX

The GAO protest ruling resolves a dispute over NASA’s Human Landing System program, one of the final key elements in the agency’s plan to return US astronauts to the lunar surface.

Prior to the recent award, NASA had placed nearly $ 1 billion in concept development contracts – SpaceX received $ 135 million, Dynetics received 253 million, and Blue Origin received $ 579 million.

When choosing SpaceX for the next round of development, NASA decided to fund a variation of SpaceX Spaceship rocket, the prototype of which SpaceX has tested at its development site in Boca Chica, Texas.

NASA plans to have their astronauts use Starship to transfer from the agency’s Orion spacecraft when the capsule reaches lunar orbit.

Protests from Blue Origin and Dynetics

Shortly after NASA’s announcement in April, Blue Origin and Dynetics each filed protests with the GAOquestioning the space agency’s process and decision.

Blue Origin condemned the award as “flawed” in April, saying NASA “moved the goal posts at the last minute”.

The company also announced that its $ 5.99 billion bid was roughly double that of SpaceX. NASA later announced that Dynetics’ bid was even higher at $ 8.5 billion.

One effect of the protests is that NASA was unable to advance work on HLS with SpaceX, with work on the program essentially being suspended pending the GAO’s decision.

Bezos’ counter

Shortly after he flew into space himself on Blue Origin’s first manned flight, Bezos wrote a letter to NASA earlier this week that he would cover up to $ 2 billion in the space agency’s cost for a lunar landing contract.

“We stand ready to help NASA moderate its technical risks and resolve its budget constraints and get the Artemis program back on a more competitive, credible and sustainable path,” Bezos wrote in the letter.

Blue Origin communications vice president Linda Mills told CNBC in an email that Bezos had “made no change to the offering” following the GAO ruling.

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NASA purpose of 2024 Moon touchdown is ‘truly doable’

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk poses when he arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer Awards in Berlin on December 1, 2020.

Britta Pedersen | AFP | Getty Images

Elon Musk believes SpaceX can help NASA achieve its ambitious goal of landing astronauts on the moon by 2024.

“I think that can be done,” said Musk on Friday, speaking afterwards SpaceX launched the Crew 2 mission for a trip to the International Space Station in orbit.

“We’re more likely to strive for it, but I think it can actually be done,” he added. “We’re probably building a lot of missiles [will] Crash a few of them, but I think it will happen. “

SpaceX received a $ 2.9 billion contract from NASA last week under the agency’s Human Landing Systems program.

Starship’s SN11 prototype rocket is on the launchpad at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facility.

SpaceX

Under the contract, Musk’s company will build a variation of this Spaceship rocket the prototype of which SpaceX has tested in Boca Chica, Texas. The company has conducted several successful test flights of Starship, although attempts to land after the last four soaring flights have resulted in fiery explosions.

NASA’s Artemis program, announced by the administration of President Donald Trump and expected to continue under President Joe Biden, consists of several missions to the orbit and surface of the moon over the coming years.

Musk said, “It is a great honor to be selected by NASA to bring people back to the moon,” emphasizing his company’s vision of flying regular flights there and beyond.

“It’s been almost half a century since humans were last on the moon. It’s too long, we have to go back there and have a permanent base on the moon – again like a large permanently manned base on the moon. And then build a city on Mars to become a space civilization, a multiplanet species, “Musk said. “We don’t want to be one of those single planet species, we want to be a multiplanet species.”

Musk did before It is estimated that Starship will cost around $ 5 billion to fully develop, although SpaceX has not disclosed how much it has spent on the program. On Friday, Musk noted that winning the contract is “really helpful” for Human Landing Systems because Starship’s development “has been largely internally funded and is quite expensive”.

“It’s hard to build a vehicle because we’re trying to crack this nut of a fast and fully reusable missile,” said Musk. “But what is really important to revolutionize space is a quickly reusable missile that is also reliable.”

NASA Industrial LEO Locations undertaking for personal area stations

SpaceX’s crew Dragon Endeavor was docked with the International Space Station on July 1, 2020.

NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration brought astronauts aboard the International Space Station for two decades last year. However, as the floating research laboratory ages, the space agency is turning to private companies to build and deploy new free-flying habitats in near-earth orbit.

Last week NASA presented the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) project. In the fourth quarter of 2021, a total of up to four companies are expected to receive up to $ 400 million to begin developing private space stations.

The agency is keen to replicate the success of its Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs. In these programs, three companies took over NASA to send cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.

NASA’s LEO commercial director Phil McAlister said he views the domain of low-earth orbit as three main activities: “cargo transportation, crew transportation, and destinations.” NASA has transferred responsibility for the two earlier activities to private companies, with SpaceX and Northrop Grumman Send cargo vehicles to the ISS as well as SpaceX and Boeing Astronauts to start. McAlister stressed that NASA had previously taken full ownership of all three activities.

“If it stayed that way, our near-earth orbit efforts would always be limited by the size of NASA’s budget,” McAlister said in a briefing Tuesday. “By bringing the private sector into these areas and into these areas as a supplier and user, you expand the pot and you have more people in low orbit.”

NASA will open the International Space Station to tourists with the first mission in 2020.

Stocktrek Pictures | Getty Images

NASA’s potential cost savings as a space station user, rather than as an owner and operator, is a major motivator for the CLD program. The International Space Station costs NASA about $ 4 billion a year to operate. In addition, it cost a total of $ 150 billion to develop and build the ISS, with NASA taking most of that bill, while Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada each contributed.

NASA estimated last year that it was the commercial crew program alone It is estimated that the agency has saved between $ 20 billion and $ 30 billion, while funding two spacecraft development instead of just one. While Boeing has not yet completed development testing, it suffers a prolonged setback after the initial unscrewing The Starliner capsule launch in December 2019 failed due to several anomalies, SpaceX’s The Crew Dragon spacecraft is now operationally flying NASA astronauts.

Another motivator for starting the CLD program is the aging hardware of the ISS, as much of the space station’s core structures were made in the 1990s and the final print structure was added in 2011. Last year Russian cosmonauts were working to fix a small air leak in a room in a station module.

“The ISS is an amazing system, but unfortunately it won’t last forever,” said McAlister. “An unrecoverable anomaly can occur at any time.”

NASA sees the CLD program as a way to get multiple companies to develop and build new habitats over the next few years so that the agency has an overlap period before the ISS retires. McAlister noted that regardless of the CLD program NASA awarded space specialist Axiom Space an order worth 140 million US dollars to build modules add to the ISS. When the ISS retires, Axiom plans to take its modules down and convert them into a free-flying space station.

“We’re making progress there and we’re really excited about it,” said McAlister. “We want to have competition in the utility sector, so that’s what we do [CLD]. It has always been part of our plan to have both modules installed and free leaflets. “

An Axiom spokesman said in a statement to CNBC that the company “broadly supports NASA’s vision of a multifaceted economy in LEO”.

“We are raising private funding to design and develop our world’s first commercial target to demonstrate that true commercial leadership can advance the LEO economy. Building the Axiom Station as an extension of the International Space Station will expand the work that at station in the near future and at best allow a timely and seamless transition when the ISS reaches the end of its life, “said Axiom.

A NASA list of organizations registered for the briefing revealed a wide variety of aerospace companies including: Airbus US, Blue Origin, Boeing, Collins Aerospace, Firefly Aerospace, General Dynamics, Ispace, Lockheed Martin, Moog, Nanoracks , Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Redwire Space, RUAG Space, Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, Virgo Galactic, Virgin Orbit, Voyager Space Holdings, and York Space Systems.

One of these companies has already announced that it will soon announce its plan for a free-flying space station. Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced that it will host a virtual press conference on March 31st to unveil the design of the “SNC Space Station”.

NASA will release a final announcement for CLD proposals in May. The first phase of the promotional awards is expected between October and December. NASA’s Johnson Space Center will manage the CLD program through its commercial LEO development office.