Encouraging Disenchantment: Why is Blue Origin so Slow?

An Equatorial Guinea stamp depicting two Russian spacecraft connected together, orbiting the Earth.

Someone asked me last week why Blue Origin is moving so slowly in its development of New Glenn. My latest Astralytical article, “Blue Moon’s 2025 Moon Landing: Nope” had instigated the question. I noted in that article that a reason why Blue Origin won’t be able to land its lander on the moon in 2025 is because its motto, “Gradatim Ferociter,” or, step by step, ferociously, shapes its culture. That cultural element was part of my answer to the question. 

I provided a few other reasons for Blue Origin’s plodding, such as Bob Smith, the person Jeff Bezos chose to run his company for a while, and the company’s challenges with the engine that will power New Glenn’s first stage, the BE-4. None of these are reasons to believe that the company can’t deliver on New Glenn's promise. It’s just that Blue Origin hasn’t delivered yet and probably won’t deliver as advertised.

The Hope for Something Better

It’s incredibly disappointing that Blue Origin has yet to launch New Glenn. The company has been working on the launch vehicle for about eight years, pushing its projected launch date back a few times. The most recent launch date Blue Origin has offered is sometime in 2024. Until its launch, New Glenn remains in the company of other ghost rockets, despite Blue Origin’s demonstration of its ability to roll out and prop up a painted tube (with no engines). 

Still…the promotions highlighting New Glenn’s capabilities are compelling. 

Blue Origin markets New Glenn as a capable rocket that can lift 45 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) and 13 to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The rocket’s LEO upmass is almost double ULA’s Delta IV Heavy’s (28.4 metric tons) but less than the Falcon Heavy’s upmass of nearly 64. Still, New Glenn’s fairing can hold more unwieldy payloads than any current operational rockets. The company notes that New Glenn’s first stage will be reusable, making Blue Origin one of the few potential SpaceX competitors that will (eventually) field a reusable rocket. 

This was the other exciting aspect of New Glenn–it should allow Blue Origin to compete against SpaceX and its Falcon 9. No other company–ULA, Arianespace, Samara, etc.- has been as focused on fielding a rocket that would give the Falcon 9 a run for its money. On the other hand, New Glenn might–if Blue Origin can successfully launch the thing. That brings us back to the question (and my guesses) as to why Blue Origin seems to be dithering with its New Glenn development efforts. 

I mentioned culture as part of the answer previously; however, it’s not just that Blue Origin’s motto shapes its culture to be slow. It’s also an advertisement for government business. 

Mistaking Slow For Meticulousness

Over four years ago, I wrote “Blue Origin: Old Space in New Space Clothing.” In it, I observed that Blue Origin’s business focus is defined by its motto: 

…Blue Origin hews to a different ethos, captured in its motto “Gradatim Ferociter” (step by step ferociously). First, let’s just acknowledge that this is the type of mission statement risk-averse organizations and managers love. That motto is pure, sweet Kool-Aid designed for direct-injection into the U.S. government’s mission assurance jugular. It assures the risk-averse of something they are already used to--trading time for mission accomplishment (hoping that the time will be spent to increase the mission’s chances).

The company’s seeming deliberateness is also an advertisement that government customers, such as NASA and the Department of Defense, seek out. Most of the time, these customers aren’t looking for a fast way to launch their spacecraft, merely one that won’t blow up. They have expensive satellites that took years to build, so it’s a good look (and a posterior covering) for them to choose a company that appears to equal their pacing–even if it has never launched a rocket.

On the other hand, gradatim ferociter isn’t an inspirational motto–at least, not unless you’re a mission assurance specialist. It’s difficult to imagine young engineers starting work in Blue Origin only to have an old head yell, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…you’re going too fast. Slow down. Gradatim ferociter, remember?” Maybe some engineers are inspired by the thought of implementing their ideas slowly (if at all). Still, I suspect most would be disappointed with the realization that their contributions won’t make a difference, crushing any dreams they may have had.

For Blue Origin, the advertising has worked, gaining the company a launch contract from NASA and launch study money from the DoD. As noted earlier, the company has won a lunar lander contract with NASA. However, Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck provided an uncomfortable truth for those who believe contracts are success indicators, calling signed contracts worthless if a company doesn’t have the rockets to back them up.

He’s not wrong, and Blue Origin has no operational orbit-capable rockets. Again, it's been very slow to get to that point, with the motto partially explaining why it's so slow. However, there are a few others.

About Bob

When it came to Blue Origin’s success, the company needed a Gwynne Shotwell. What it got was Bob Smith. When Jeff Bezos announced his selection, I wondered about Smith’s suitability. That uncertainty wasn’t because I knew the man but because he came from Honeywell, a company unknown for accomplishing projects quickly. Based on his corporate background, Smith didn’t have the mindset to run Blue Origin the way it needed to be run. 

Many articles confirmed my suspicions. As described in this Ars Technica story, Smith’s presence impacted the company’s programs and its culture, but not in the way I had hoped. It slowed despite unrealistically aggressive project deadline pronouncements, which slowed things down even more. Worse, Smith was reported as not being a great leader. By 2021, even mainstream news outlets reported on the challenges Blue Origin’s employees faced because of the company’s management and noticeable glacial pacing.

Smith’s replacement in late 2023, Dave Limp, comes from the more aggressive and faster-paced Amazon. Hopefully, he will work on making Blue Origin an actual competitor to SpaceX instead of a contract collection bin.

Then, there are Blue Origin's struggles with the BE-4 engine. The company seems genuinely stumped by whatever is happening with it, resulting in a slowdown in New Glenn’s launch development. Six years ago (during Space Symposium), Smith touted that the BE-4 “works, and works well.” At the time, he noted that Blue Origin had spent “over seven years” developing the BE-4, meaning that as of early April 2024, the company has worked on the engine for over 13 years.

Apparently, Smith’s definition of working well is very different from mine.

And Blue Origin still appears to be struggling with producing the BE-4. United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) CEO, Tory Bruno, recently noted that his company is still waiting for Blue Origin to supply the second engine for ULA’s Vulcan rocket:

"The pacing item in our supply chain is the BE-4…The reason the BE-4 is a little bit behind everyone else is because it took a little bit longer to get it developed and finished.”

In his typical way, Bruno is gracious in his description of Blue Origin's challenges, even as ULA suffers from the company's inability to deliver on time. Limp may be able to corral whatever challenges the BE-4 still presents to the company. However, the fact that the company is still taking so long to get a single engine to ULA indicates that if things at the company are changing for the better, they are doing so slowly.

New Technology for an Old Business Model

There is no delight in seeing a company like Blue Origin struggling. I’d like these circumstances to be different and for Blue Origin to be as ruthless as Amazon. It would make the launch market more interesting…maybe. Its focus on winning over government customers is still relatively unambitious despite the possibility of another reusable rocket that might make launches less expensive for commercial companies. Sure, launching for the U.S. government is profitable, but it does nothing to expand the launch market. 

Those observations are why I ended “Old Space” with:

When I started this analysis, I wondered if Blue Origin’s slow pacing resulted from Bezos’ apparent treatment of the launch business as a hobby.

I now believe he is treating Blue Origin as a business--one designed to attract government customers with its methodical pacing and not much more. Blue Origin’s New Glenn won’t change the industry, despite the rocket’s advertised reusability--that’s never been what the company is about. Instead, Blue Origin’s steps appear to be on the road to it becoming interchangeable with the established companies the company is competing with. It is not intended to be the new SpaceX, but rather an updated ULA.

Even though I wrote that over four years ago, the observations within it still apply. When I wrote that paragraph, I figured Blue Origin would outcompete ULA. Instead, the company is taking it out of the competition by acquiring it. I am unsure that such an acquisition is healthy for a company that hasn’t launched anything yet, and the potential implosion of the acquisition would be disastrous for the U.S. launch market. An acquisition won't speed up Blue Origin's processes.

These are my guesses as to why a company that started so well has slowed down so much. Maybe they are valid. The complexities of post-acquisition integration might worsen the company's position to the point that New Glenn never becomes a reality.

It would be nice to guess wrong about that.

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