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SpaceX And Blue Origin Fight To Win The Modern Space Race

SpaceX and Elon Musk have the lead, but Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin are methodically persistent.

SpaceX And Blue Origin Fight To Win The Modern Space Race

[Illustration: Tavis Coburn]

From a dusty expanse in West Texas, Jeff Bezos and the crew of Blue Origin, his well-funded aerospace company, fire up their New Shepard rocket. It rises vertically, thrusting into the heavens at more than 2,800 mph. The unmanned crew capsule it’s carrying detaches and it crests roughly 64 miles above sea level, and the booster begins plummeting back to earth, a pencil dive from space. At 3,635 feet, the engine reignites, blazing a streak at its tail that flares as the rocket nears the ground, slowing its fall. Within a plume of dust, New Shepard softly touches down at around just 4 mph—a controlled test landing that Bezos calls "flawless."

When Blue Origin first achieved this feat in November 2015, Bezos, wearing aviators and a cowboy hat, sprayed champagne in celebration of a landing many proclaimed "historic." By April, when Blue Origin reused the same rocket for the third time, the remarkable had become routine. And soon, old news: On April 8, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its Falcon 9, a rocket that’s substantially faster, more powerful, and larger than Blue Origin’s—roughly as tall as a 24-story building. Musk’s team not only managed to land the Falcon 9 safely from a higher altitude, it did so on a drone ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

Most Blue Origin and SpaceX insiders recoil at the idea of a rivalry, preferring to view their contributions to spaceflight as progress for all mankind. But the fact is that the two companies are engaged in fierce competition: to recruit the best engineers, and, above all, to make history. And their respective leaders, Bezos and Musk, are in the running to be the world’s dreamer-in-chief. Let Alphabet CEO Larry Page have his moonshots; this is about Mars. Bezos and Musk are not only competing against each other but an emerging generation of aerospace entrepreneurs, as well as fellow swashbuckling billionaires Paul Allen, Yuri Milner, and Richard Branson, all of whom have private space initiatives. But Blue Origin and SpaceX’s more frequent launches, chronicled for social media consumption, have given them the lead in the public’s imagination.

Touchdown! Blue Origin and SpaceX each won the Internet on the day when they stuck their landings.Photo: SpaceX, Alamy

Bezos is working toward a space-faring universe where people will live and work. Musk envisions colonizing Mars. To get there, they must first dramatically lower the cost of spaceflight, which is why they’re both focused on constructing reusable rockets, vehicles that will make ferrying humans to space more financially feasible.

The two are on different trajectories, Bezos’s more gradual than Musk’s, say sources familiar with the companies’ plans. "Everything we did [at Blue] was thought about in terms of decades. It’s very much how Jeff thinks about his companies," says one longtime Bezos confidant. "SpaceX, on the other hand, ran like hell and burned their people out. Culturally, the two places really reflect their leaders." When I ask SpaceX senior communications manager Phil Larson about these charges, he says, "Hours and expectations are higher than the industry average, but you can’t make humanity a multiplanetary species on 40 hours a week." (Blue Origin declined to cooperate with this story.)

Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies 14 years ago, and he sunk $100 million, the majority of his fortune at the time, into the risky venture (he invested the rest in Tesla Motors and SolarCity). Even with his team working 90-hour weeks, SpaceX was perpetually on the edge of bankruptcy. "We always had money problems," says one former top engineer who worked closely with Musk. "We had this tremendous burn rate, but to get anything done, Elon had to hire lots of people." Although three launches ended in failure, the company’s fourth was successful, and SpaceX ultimately won a $1.6 billion contract from NASA in late 2008, effectively saving the company. By 2012, SpaceX began flight testing its reusable-vehicle system.

Bezos founded Blue nearly two years before SpaceX began, but pursued a more methodical approach. (He wears cowboy boots emblazoned with Blue’s motto, GRADATIM FEROCITER, which means "step by step, ferociously.") For years, the company employed just a few dozen staffers, keeping expenses in check (today, Blue Origin has a team of approximately 600 to SpaceX’s more than 5,000). They worked tirelessly—Blue ran into a series of setbacks before its New Shepard system made strides in more recent years—but their situation was simply less urgent than SpaceX’s. "Elon had to get to revenue or they wouldn’t survive, whereas Blue could go on many, many years without ever having revenue," says a former manager at Blue describing the "luxury" of having a founder as deep-pocketed and patient as Bezos. "But that’s why [SpaceX] achieved a lot more in roughly the same time period."

Both Musk and Bezos are known as demanding bosses who have become fluent in their adopted industry’s technical intricacies. Musk, who moved certain Tesla operations closer to SpaceX’s sleek headquarters in Hawthorne, California, so he could better oversee both companies, is particularly intense, and stories abound of him driving employees to do the impossible. Caught unprepared in a meeting? Musk might cock his head back, his eyes rolling to the ceiling as he decided "how much he is going to unload on you," recalls the former top engineer. "He’d go, ‘Did you consider this?’ And, boy, if you didn’t know what he was talking about, you were in trouble."

Bezos is usually at Blue only once a week (he leaves day-to-day operations to president Rob Meyerson), but sources who have worked with Bezos say he is similarly exacting. He "reads all the books," "knows everything about propulsion and rockets," and will speak at length in product reviews about "injectors and manufacturing technology," according to multiple sources. He constantly questions assumptions and will call out individuals even in crowded meetings. "I’ve seen some pretty disastrous presentations to Jeff," remembers one former engineer. "If you don’t have all your facts straight, you can’t win an argument with [him]. He will pick up on things in the room that nobody else does."

Most notably, both leaders are forceful advocates for their aerospace brands, creating a halo effect that helps not only with recruiting but also in public perception. In November, when Bezos successfully launched and landed the New Shepard booster, he tweeted, "The rarest of beasts—a used rocket," along with a link to a slick video of the mission, which racked up 5 million views. Musk sniped back, "Not quite ‘rarest,’ " boasting that a SpaceX rocket performed the same feat a half-dozen times three years ago. In late December, when SpaceX successfully landed the first-stage booster of its Falcon 9, Bezos snarked on Twitter, "Welcome to the club!"


Touchdown! Blue Origin and SpaceX each won the Internet on the day when they stuck their landings.Photo: courtesy of Blue Origin

So who is winning? I learn the answer when I attend the New Space Age conference at MIT in April. The day before, SpaceX had landed its rocket on that floating drone ship, and the chatter among some of the most brilliant minds in aerospace sounds like a board meeting for Elon Musk’s startup. In presentation after presentation, hardly a minute goes by without talk of Musk or SpaceX. "It is far and away in the lead right now of private-rocket development," praises former NASA astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman. Even William Pomerantz, VP of special projects at Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, tells me, "They have achieved the most results so far and are affecting massive change." He calls Blue Origin more of a "wild card."

SpaceX has put pressure on the traditional space-industry pricing models and supply chain, and as a result it has become an enticing, more affordable alternative for delivering payloads into orbit. It has won $4.8 billion in government contracts to date. In late April, it won a military contract by bidding a staggering 40% less than comparable proposals made by old-guard competitor United Launch Alliance, the struggling joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. (ULA has announced that it will lay off up to 875 employees, more than a quarter of its workforce.)

To catch up, Blue, among other things, has to graduate from suborbital to orbital space. Flying into orbit, as SpaceX now regularly does, requires drastically more velocity, and also involves significantly more complicated considerations relating to how its spacecraft manage heat, fuel, and the trajectory of its ascent and descent. Given its lead, no wonder SpaceX-ers write off Blue as a potential threat. While impressed with what Blue has accomplished with a smaller team, SpaceX veterans tell me, "We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Blue," and, "We didn’t really take them seriously." Blue Origin, another veteran says, is just "Jeff Bezos’s hobby project," a phrase I heard often throughout my reporting.

Naturally, Bezos loyalists resent this notion. "I don’t care who you are," one bristles, "launching a rocket [hundreds of thousands of] feet and landing it on legs with 100,000 pounds of thrust from a hydrogen engine—these are not hobbies!"

Perhaps what matters most is how often the duo are mentioned in the same breath at MIT’s conference for "astropreneurs." (Constantly.) The young innovators in attendance are dreaming up everything from asteroid-mining operations to micro-satellite startups; in the years ahead, they’ll likely want to work for SpaceX or Blue Origin, or will depend on them to deliver their experiments and prototypes into orbit. Likewise, SpaceX and Blue will come to rely on these nascent businesses to seed a market in space, akin to, say, what the App Store did for Apple and the smartphone industry. The real innovation will happen when people figure out what to do in space—not just how to get there, aerospace industry experts say. But first, launching and landing reusable rockets must become so predictable, frequent, and safe that it’s mundane. (Imagine if touching down a Boeing 747 was still a miraculous feat that we shared on social media.)

Next up, SpaceX will shuttle NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in 2017, reducing America’s dependence on Russia and making history in the process. Musk also recently announced that SpaceX would attempt to send an unmanned spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018.

Bezos, by contrast, is sticking with his incremental approach. Blue has locked in a deal to develop and supply ULA with its next-generation rocket engine. As it builds out its orbital-space technology, Blue will continue firing up its suborbital New Shepard rocket, with the aim of transporting tourists to space by 2018. While acknowledging that Blue has much ground to gain on its rival, the longtime Bezos confidant says Blue has a "solid pipeline. They’ve flown the same vehicle [multiple] times in a row, and soon you’re going to see these guys flying weekly, and no one else is going to be doing that."

Make no mistake: Both Bezos and Musk are making history. With each rocket fired into space—both conducted launches within the past week—their hold on the world’s collective awe tightens. Musk gallops toward the galaxy. And Bezos, with each successful mission, marks his rocket-crew capsule by imprinting on it what has become a symbol of pride for his team: a tortoise, sturdy and surefire, reaching for the stars.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Fast Company magazine.

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