Blue Origin, the rocket company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is searching for a site to build an international launch facility as it looks to compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The company is also on the hunt for new partnerships and acquisitions in Europe and beyond to accelerate the scaling up of its space services, such as the launch and engine businesses, said Blue Origin’s chief executive, Bob Smith, in an interview with the Financial Times.
“We’re looking for anything we can do to acquire, to scale up to better serve our customers,” Smith said. “It’s not a function of size, rather how much it accelerates our road map of what we’re trying to get done.” According to Smith, the search for a new launch site was still at an early stage and no location had yet been chosen, though his comments mark a more assertive stance at the business.
Blue Origin was the first company to successfully launch, land, and reuse a rocket but delays in the development of its launchers have made the company fall behind Musk’s SpaceX, which has already carried out several successful crewed and unmanned missions to the International Space Station. Further acquisitions and partnerships alongside another launch site on top of its Texas and Florida facilities could be a way for Blue Origin to catch up, analysts claim.
The company is looking at acquisitions and partnerships in many areas, from manufacturing to software. It also wants to expand services in new regions such as Europe. “I think there’s great opportunity in Europe,” said Smith. “It’s far less clear to us how to actually sell space services in Europe than it is in the United States.”
Caleb Henry, director of research at Quilty Space, said: “Blue Origin’s interest in Europe could also help it acquire new talent at a time of fierce competition for skills. Europe is known for having a roster of space professionals and so it could be a way for them to keep growing. The acquisitions also marked a different mindset.”
Apart from developing rockets and engines to take cargo and crew to space, the company is leading a consortium to build a commercial space station. It was awarded a $3.4bn NASA contract last month to build a lunar lander to take humans to the moon’s surface. In a separate interview at the FT’s Investing in Space summit last month, Smith said the company (with Bezos funding at least $1bn a year) had “hundreds of millions in revenue as well as billions of dollars in orders”. However, he admitted that it now had to find ways to accelerate progress in the launch business to meet customer demand.
Amazon’s satellite broadband constellation, Project Kuiper, chose Blue Origin’s new heavy lift orbital rocket, New Glenn, for a minimum of 12 launches over five years. The rocket is expected to make its first flight in 2024, following several years of delay. “We have to ingest that order and be able to fly and fly well,” Smith said. “Our challenge is going to be how do we get the cadence [of production and launch] up.”
However, the company will have to move quickly as SpaceX is preparing to fly its superjumbo rocket, Starship, for the second time. The first launch in April ended in failure when the vehicle exploded four minutes into the flight, but when Starship enters service its 100-tonne capacity is expected to put pressure on launch pricing. Smith said he was not worried about New Glenn’s ability to compete with Starship; “We have a good order book, and we can continue to expand that”.
Blue Origin was also generating revenue from its New Shepard suborbital launcher, which has made 23 missions and carried 31 people across the Kármán line marking the border of space. That launcher, however, has been grounded after an uncrewed mission failed last September. New Shepard is expected to return to unmanned flight in the coming weeks. According to Smith, crewed flights could be expected to take place roughly six weeks after a successful unmanned flight.
Last year Blue Origin bought Honeybee Robotics, the space-based robotics systems company. “They are wanting to expand and work more with partners. To do that they need skillsets outside of Blue Origin,” said Henry. The Blue Origin boss, who came from Honeywell Aerospace in 2017, has been expanding the company during the past five years with a view to transform it “from a research organisation to a business”.