It seems like billionaire-backed space enterprises are launching spacecraft all the time these days. So, why does Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin appear to be in jeopardy?
Despite a successful summer, recent competition and several controversial tweets — including some false infographics — have left many in the space business critical of Jeff Bezos and his company.
Commercial spaceflight has taken off in a big way in the last few months, with companies like Axiom planning crewed missions to the International Space Station, SpaceX winning NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract to build a moon lander, and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic completing crewed suborbital flights with their billionaire founders on board.
However, in the middle of the flourishing space industry, one company has gotten the lion’s share of criticism: Blue Origin.
Blue Origin and its hardworking engineers and employees have been progressing with the company’s many space technologies since Bezos founded the company in 2000, including its New Shepard vehicle, which lofted a crew of four passengers to space and back this July, and its upcoming New Glenn orbital vehicle.
The recent flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard, which transported Bezos, his brother Mark, 18-year-old Dutch student Oliver Daemen, and pioneering aviator Wally Funk to and from suborbital space, was a watershed moment for the firm.
It was the company’s first flight to space with passengers, a significant step toward launching crews of paying clients, including space tourists, on a regular basis.
However, this watershed moment, which thrust Blue Origin into the limelight, also appears to have marked a shift in the popular perception of Bezos’ organization.
The July trip wasn’t the first time Blue Origin received widespread media attention.
However, the fact that it was a crewed launch (with Bezos among the crew) and its proximity to Virgin Galactic’s crewed suborbital flight with creator Richard Branson a little over a week before cast a more favorable light on the enterprise.
THE ENTIRELY WRONG ATTENTION
Christian Davenport, the author of “The Space Barons” and space correspondent for The Washington Post, told Space.com, “There is a fair bit of pushback to the trips, and the business more broadly, regarding the high expenditures of these flights.”
“While these entrepreneurs are beginning to take private citizens [to space], the passengers have so far been overwhelmingly wealthy. This has generated concerns about who would benefit in the end.” (In 2013, Bezos purchased The Washington Post.)
The public debate on social media, as well as traditional media and broadcast news networks, has centered on whether it is positive progress to have millionaires ride to space in rockets their firms constructed.
“Bezos has faced some substantial pushback in the last month, both because he is the world’s richest person and because his first true public spaceflight act was to get on a ship and rocket into space for his enjoyment,” said Eric Berger, author and senior space editor at Ars Technica.
“This reinforces the stereotype of commercial space as a playground for ‘wealthy lads and their toys.'” (In March, Berger published “Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX.”)
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), who campaigned for president in 2020, openly chastised Bezos on Aug. 18. “Jeff Bezos may take a joy ride to space while he and other billionaires have gamed the system so they pay nearly zero in taxes,” Warren tweeted.
Even though fellow billionaire Branson has conducted a suborbital flight with his own company in recent months, much of the unfavorable attention has focused on Bezos.
Apart from their space endeavors, Bezos and other billionaire founders like Branson and Elon Musk of SpaceX have long and illustrious careers and histories that have elicited a wide range of public reactions.
However, Bezos’ recent actions, as well as Blue Origin’s competitive infographics, have generated criticism of the corporation.
INFORMATION GRAPHICS IN SKETCH FORM
Blue Origin released the first of three infographics ahead of its crewed suborbital trip, which may be described as “competitive” in the mildest of terms.
The first infographic, shared by Blue Origin on July 9, showed a side-by-side comparison of the differences between Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital journey.
Just two days before Virgin Galactic’s crewed suborbital flight on July 11, the infographic was published.
Blue Origin’s trip would reach above the Karman line, an internationally recognized space boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth, whereas Virgin Galactic’s flight would only go above 50 miles (80 kilometers), an altitude that qualifies for astronaut wings by US government agencies.
This infographic was followed by others that poked fun at other corporations in the space industry.
The most recent one, which was published on the company’s website, described SpaceX’s Starship deep-space vehicle as “immensely complex” and “high risk.”
“His [Bezos’] public relations strategy of using SpaceX-critical infographics is ham-fisted and tone-deaf,” Berger remarked.
TUG OF WAR HLS
Another key cause of dispute sparked by Bezos and his company is depicted in the infographic displaying SpaceX’s Starship.
In April, NASA selected SpaceX as the sole winner of its Human Landing System (HLS) contract, which would see the business develop NASA’s next moon lander as part of the agency’s Artemis program, which will bring astronauts to the lunar surface.
SpaceX beat out Dynetics and the Blue Origin-led “National Team” for the contract, which will use Starship.
NASA had previously stated that it wanted to award multiple HLS contracts so that the Artemis program would benefit from competition and redundancy.
But, given the relatively modest levels of financing Congress has authorized for the HLS work, it wasn’t a practical choice, according to agency officials in the wake of the contract announcement.
Blue Origin and Dynetics both filed complaints with the US Government Accountability Office rather than accept NASA’s decision. (Earlier this month, such objections were turned down.)
In July, Bezos wrote an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, explaining why Blue Origin should have gotten the HLS contract and implying that the selection process was flawed.
According to Berger, Bezos “has been chastised in the space world for his adamant opposition to NASA’s award of the Human Landing System contract to SpaceX.”
Popular Science and other magazines are beginning to highlight this criticism, in addition to the rising debate over social media.
Laura Forczyk, the owner of the aerospace consulting firm Astralytical, told Popular Science, “I don’t know if the public is paying attention to this, but the space community is, and the space community is reacting extremely adversely.”
“It’s regarded as childishness—a tantrum.”
According to SpaceNews, the HLS saga has continued, with Blue Origin recently filing a complaint in the Court of Federal Claims against NASA over the selection, citing “NASA’s unlawful and incorrect examination of proposals submitted under the HLS Option A BAA [broad agency announcement].”
According to a NASA representative, the lawsuit has effectively halted development on the Artemis moon lander, with NASA willing to temporarily pause its HLS work with SpaceX as a result of the litigation.
In the middle of the HLS contract woes, a Blue Origin engineer, Nitin Arora, who formerly worked for NASA, stated on LinkedIn that he had jumped ship to join SpaceX.
“Bezos appears to have deviated significantly from Blue Origin’s fundamental principles,” Berger remarked.
“The public, as well as many members of Congress, are perplexed as to why someone with $200 billion is protesting and suing NASA for money to build a lunar lander.”
“If creating a highway to space is vital, then start building it,” Berger remarked.
“If what you produce serves a beneficial purpose, government contracts will inevitably follow.”
THE CREAM OF CHERRY
While Blue Origin as a company has received a lot of flak for their infographics and other measures in response to NASA’s HLS pick, the firm’s founder has also come under fire.
Bezos added another more contentious item to the list on the day of his suborbital flight, in addition to his public letter, Blue Origin’s many acts after losing the HLS contract, and the company’s inflammatory infographics.
Bezos and the rest of the New Shepard crew convened for a live streamed press conference after returning to Earth following the brief mission.
During the press conference, Bezos, who was still wearing the enormous cowboy hat he wore to space, took only three questions from reporters before diving into the details of the mission.
Many people were taken aback by Bezos’ post-flight remark: “I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, since you guys paid for all of this,” he stated to the throng and live stream audience.
Even without Bezos’ response, the juxtaposition of Bezos’ voyage on the spaceship with ongoing accusations about Amazon’s worker treatment has prompted questions and worries.
“Jeff Bezos will spend a little more than 10 minutes on a rocketship tomorrow. On’megacycle’ shifts, Amazon warehouse workers will be on their feet for 10 hours.
I’m working for an economy that values the dignity of their labor rather than the growth of his fortune “One day before Bezos’ debut, Congressman Andy Levin (D-Mich.) tweeted.
While Bezos isn’t the only billionaire space firm founder who has been chastised, “The key difference between Bezos and others,” Berger added, “is that he has mostly neglected the public and the media.”
“Musk appears at news conferences and teleconferences daily, and he is constantly on Twitter.
Branson is personable in the sense that he appears to be a regular guy. Bezos, on the other hand, is aloof “Berger continued.
“He seldom ever tweets, and his Instagram account is designed to project a specific image.
This is not someone interested in really participating with the space community.”
Is it, however, truly required for a space company to “engage with the space community” to succeed?
IS THE IMAGE OF THE PUBLIC THAT IMPORTANT?
To be successful, a company’s creator does not have to be the most popular person on the planet. However, Bezos’ and Blue Origin’s aforementioned actions could imperil the company’s future prosperity.
While several firms have been launching satellites into orbit for years, Michael López-Alegra, a former NASA astronaut and current vice president of business development at Axiom, told Space.com that “there aren’t that many companies who are participating in the latter, human spaceflight aspect.”
“And so, I believe that each of them — notably the two suborbital firms — must figure out how to set themselves apart.
And part of it is clear because the experiences are so dissimilar “He was referring to Virgin Galactic’s spaceship and Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and capsule, respectively.
“But, beyond that, I believe their branding and media approach is how they want to be perceived.”
“I believe there is a large market for suborbital space tourism,” Berger said. “I believe the company will be successful as long as New Shepard can execute with safe and regular flights.”
Blue Origin, on the other hand, “is starting to go after government contracts more actively, and when it starts flying private citizens, it will need to communicate with the public more effectively,” Davenport added.
“The companies’ founders may pretend that they are unconcerned with public opinion, but members of Congress are.
And, because Congress is in charge of federal spending, they might have a significant impact on the corporations’ fate.”
Blue Origin’s next launch will be an uncrewed New Shepard flight designated NS-17.
This mission will launch into suborbital space on August 26 before returning to Earth.
The author is : Chelsea Gohd covers space and science for Space.com