July 22, 2021

SAD, BUT TRUE: Despite Tuesday’s flight, Jeff Bezos is running out of time to save Blue Origin.

In late 2014, Blue Origin stunned the space industry by announcing that it had reached a deal to build rocket engines for United Launch Alliance, then the premiere launch company in the United States. United Launch Alliance selected Blue’s BE-4 engine for its new Vulcan rocket over an offering from Aerojet Rocketdyne, the blueblood propulsion company behind the majority of large rocket engines in US history.

About a year later, Blue Origin pulled off another feat by safely launching and landing the New Shepard rocket and capsule on its up-and-down suborbital mission. This marked the first time in history that anyone—country or company—had vertically launched a first-stage rocket into space and then landed it back on the ground.

The next month, in December 2015, SpaceX repeated this launch-and-landing feat with its orbital Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. From a technical standpoint, the Falcon 9 landing was much more significant, as it requires about 30 times more energy to boost a payload into orbit and complicated engineering to slow such a booster down and return it to the landing site. No matter: After the Falcon 9 flight, Jeff Bezos cheekily tweeted, “Welcome to the club” to Musk and SpaceX.

Musk was decidedly not amused, but this banter underscored the emerging rivalry—Bezos and Musk, billionaire versus billionaire, on a quest to build reusable rockets and remake the space industry. Back then, it all seemed so clear: The 21st-century space race would be run by Blue Origin and SpaceX, and it was going to be a hell of a thing to watch.

Only it hasn’t been. There has been no race. Since the end of 2015, Blue Origin has launched its suborbital New Shepard system just 15 more times, an average of fewer than three missions per year. Only this week did humans finally get on board for a launch. As for the BE-4 engine, after promising it would be ready for spaceflight in 2017, Blue Origin has yet to deliver a flight-ready version to United Launch Alliance more than four years later.

ULA is in a real bind here.

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