Bezos: Blue Origin needs to be faster as Musk’s SpaceX surges

Jeff Bezos wants his space cargo and tourism venture Blue Origin to move faster—much faster—as Elon Musk’s SpaceX notches one win after another.

The space rivalry between the two billionaires has been well documented. But in a long interview with the Lex Fridman Podcast posted Thursday, the Amazon founder struck a diplomatic note, acknowledging that if Musk were not a “capable leader,” building SpaceX and Tesla would be “impossible.”

Instead, Bezos spoke more about his own leadership approach at Blue Origin, saying that the “primary reason” he resigned a few years ago as CEO at Amazon—where he’s now executive chairman—was to add “some sense of urgency” to the space business he founded 23 years ago.

One way Bezos intends to accelerate Blue Origin is to speed up decision making. Whereas Amazon’s goal is to be “the world’s most customer-obsessed company, Blue Origin, he said, is “going to become the world’s most decisive company.” 

Amazon lessons for Blue Origin

To get there, he’ll apply lessons he learned while leading Amazon for decades. Bezos described the difference between a two-way-door decision and a one-way-door decision. The latter are “irreversible” and “should be elevated up to the senior executives, who should slow them down and make sure the right thing is being done.” 

By way of example, he said, Blue Origin changing its mind about which propellants to use in a space vehicle’s different stages “would be a very big setback, so that’s the kind of decision you scrutinize very, very carefully.” 

But mostly companies encounter two-way-door decisions, Bezos said, where if it turns out to be the wrong choice, “you can come back in and pick another door.” These decisions should be made quickly by individuals or “very small teams deep in the organization…in the full understanding that you can always change your mind.” 

He’s also applying lessons learned about two “really bad” ways to reach an agreement at a company. One is compromise, where disagreeing parties settle on something that isn’t true in order to move on. For example, if they disagree on how high the ceiling is, he said, with one saying it’s 12 feet high and the other saying it’s 11, they might compromise with 11.5 feet—instead of using a tape measure to determine the actual truth.

The other mistake, which happens all the time, Bezos said, is to resolve the disagreement by “just who’s more stubborn.” 

“They just have a war of attrition,” he said, “and whichever one gets exhausted first capitulates to the other one. Again, you haven’t arrived at truth, and this is very demoralizing.”

At Blue Origin, Bezos tells his team to “never get to a point where you are resolving something by who gets exhausted first. Escalate that. I’ll help you make the decision.” 

Launching controversy

But Bezos’s proximity to both Amazon and Blue Origin has led to controversy. A notable example is with Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which intends to challenge SpaceX’s well-established Starlink by also offering broadband internet access across the globe via satellites in low Earth orbit. 

Last year, Amazon announced the launch partners for getting its planned 3,000-plus Kuiper satellites into orbit. While it contracted Bezos’s own Blue Origin—along with Europe’s Arianespace and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin—for up to 83 launches, it notably snubbed Musk’s SpaceX. 

That prompted Amazon investors to sue the company’s leadership, alleging they “excluded the most obvious and affordable launch provider, SpaceX, from its procurement process because of Bezos’s personal rivalry with Musk.” The investors also said there was a “glaring conflict of interest,” with Amazon funneling money to Blue Origin when Bezos owned the latter and was executive chairman of the former. This week, Amazon sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, 10 days after announcing an agreement with SpaceX for three launches of its Kuiper satellites. 

“The claims in the shareholder lawsuit had no impact on our procurement plans for Project Kuiper, including our recently disclosed launch agreement with SpaceX,” an Amazon spokesperson told Fortune. “The claims in that suit are completely without merit, and we look forward to showing that through the legal process.”

SpaceX success

Either way, Amazon and Blue Origin have watched Musk’s space company race ahead in important areas.

In April 2021, NASA awarded SpaceX a sole contact worth $2.9 billion for its lunar landing system. Blue Origin, which had competed for what it thought would be two contracts, sued the space agency over the decision, but it lost the case later that year.

Meanwhile Amazon’s Project Kuiper is trying to catch up with Starlink but has a long way to go.

Starlink, which offers broadband service globally, including in remote areas, already has more than 5,000 satellites in operation. Its satellites can beam data to one another using more than 8,000 lasers across the constellation, making for a faster, more reliable service. 

In contrast to this flurry of progress, Amazon launched two prototype satellites only in October, announcing this week that they had successfully used lasers to beam data between them. The company aims to put more than 3,000 satellites into orbit.

In the meantime Starlink is racing ahead, with more than 2 million active users. Costco recently began selling Starlink receivers, and this week SpaceX received U.S. approval to test direct-to-cell calls via Starlink in partnership with T-Mobile.

This year, SpaceX has notched more than 90 successful launches of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, and it’s become a juggernaut in the industry. It hit a near $180 billion valuation this week based on an ongoing secondary share sale, making it one the world’s most valuable private companies.

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