Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin loses high expertise in battle for NASA landers

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.

CNBC has learned that at least 11 key executives and senior engineers have left Blue Origin this summer, with many moving on in the weeks following Bezos’ space flight.

Two of the engineers, Nitin Arora and Lauren Lyons, announced jobs at other space companies this week: Elon Musk’s 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. These departures include: New Shepard Senior Vice President Steve Bennett, Head of Mission Assurance Jeff Ashby (who has retired), New Glenn Senior Director Bob Ess, New Glenn Senior Finance Manager Bill Scammell, Senior Manager of Production Testing Christopher Payne, Senior Propulsion Design Engineer Dave Sanderson, Senior HLS Human Factors Engineer Rachel Forman, 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 (HLS) program, earning 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 battle to participate in the Human Landing System program. Blue Origin first launched a PR offensive against SpaceX’s Starship rocket and then sued NASA 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 employs nearly 4,000 people in the United States and is headquartered near Seattle in Kent, Washington, with offices in Cape Canaveral, Florida; VanHorn, Texas; and Huntsville, Alabama.

Shortly after the 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 the bonus, which was paid out to employees on July 30th. 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.

Internally, two people told CNBC that the bonus was viewed as an attempt by corporate management to entice talent to stay – in response to the number of employees who filed a resignation after launching their first crew into space and back into space.

One look at Glassdoor reveals a marked difference in employee satisfaction with running Blue Origin compared to 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 a crucial part of the agency’s plan to return US astronauts to the surface of the moon known as Artemis.

Last year NASA awarded nearly $ 1 billion in concept development contracts for HLS – with SpaceX receiving $ 135 million, Leidos subsidiary Dynetics $ 253 million, and Blue Origin $ 579 million. The space agency then expected to sign hardware development contracts with two of these three companies earlier this year, but after Congress failed to request funding for HLS, NASA decided to give only SpaceX a contract worth approximately $ 2.9 billion To give.

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 and sued NASA in US federal court.

NASA has paid $ 300 million of SpaceX’s 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 the Blue Origin 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 – though common in the industry where the adage “space is tough” is persistently heard – has 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 has not disclosed any prices, New Shepard competes with Virgin Galactic in the suborbital space tourism space, 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 rocket engines, led by the BE-4 engine that will power its New Glenn rocket. The company had previously stated that its BE-4 engines would be “ready to fly in 2017”.

However, four years later, development issues and a lack of hardware for testing have prevented Blue Origin from shipping its first aero engines, ArsTechnica reported earlier this month. The company is pushing to have two BE-4 engines ready by the end of this year. Notably, BE-4 is important beyond Blue Origin as ULA has signed a contract to use the engines to power their Vulcan rockets and has chosen Blue Origin as its supplier instead of Aerojet Rocketdyne. 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 his time focusing on Amazon over the past two decades, but has continuously sold portions of his stake in the tech giant to fund the development of Blue Origin – valued at $ 1 billion per year or possibly more. Bezos stepped down as Amazon CEO last month, with many in the space industry expecting him to focus more on his space company.

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