Bezos throws cash, engineers at rocket programme

  • space race
- REUTERS, SEATTLE

Aug 5, 2018-

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.

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 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. 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 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.

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

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

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 commercialisation, 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.

Blue Origin’s workforce of more than 1,500 has more than doubled from its early 2016 levels, three employees said.

Published: 05-08-2018 08:38

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