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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!”


• • 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 effecting 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 (R67.8 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 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 long-time Bezos confidant says Blue has a “solid pipeline. They’ve flown the same vehicle three 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, their hold on the world’s collective awe tightens. Musk gallops toward the galaxy. And Bezos, with each successful mission, marks his rocketcrew capsule by imprinting on it what has become a symbol of pride for his team: a tortoise, sturdy and sure-fire, reaching for the stars.

Profile for Fast Company SA

Fast Company SA - September 2016  

Fast Company SA - September 2016