SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell as Blue Origin’s CEO? New book about Jeff Bezos says she was asked
When it comes to his Blue Origin space venture, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos likes to say “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” But a new book claims Bezos was so concerned about the slow pace of progress five years ago that Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, was asked about becoming Blue Origin’s CEO.
Shotwell — who is second only to billionaire CEO Elon Musk at SpaceX — quickly rebuffed the entreaty, saying that “it wouldn’t look right,” according to tech journalist Brad Stone’s account in “Amazon Unbound.” That’s just one of the eye-openers from just one of the book’s chapters — the one that’s devoted to Blue Origin, which was founded by Bezos as a privately held company in 2000.
“Amazon Unbound” follows up on Stone’s 2013 book about Bezos and Amazon, “The Everything Store.” The earlier book touched upon Blue Origin’s genesis in Bezos’ childhood space dreams — and quoted a high-school girlfriend of his as saying Bezos founded Amazon solely to earn the money needed for his space venture.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Bezos told me jokingly in the spring of 2016.
Stone’s new book suggests that just six months after that interview, Bezos was in no joking mood. Citing interviews with people who were familiar with Blue Origin’s workings, Stone writes that Bezos called in a succession of executives during several weeks in the fall of 2016 to discuss the space venture’s progress, or lack thereof.
The book depicts Bezos as frustrated with expenses that were bigger than he expected — and results that were coming more slowly than expected. In Stone’s telling, Blue Origin’s longtime president, Rob Meyerson, was caught in the middle: charged with following through on Bezos’ emailed instructions, but resented by demoralized members of his team.
Bezos’ dissatisfaction was fueled in part by the success of SpaceX and its billionaire CEO, Elon Musk. While most of Blue Origin’s funding came directly from Bezos, SpaceX hustled to raise outside capital — including $1 billion from Google and Fidelity — and successfully snagged multibillion-dollar contracts from NASA. SpaceX was hopping ahead like the hare in Aesop’s Fables, while Blue Origin seemed to be plodding along like the tortoise. (And in fact, tortoises are part of Blue Origin’s coat of arms.)
There was a personal element to the rivalry. “Musk and Bezos were a lot alike — relentless, competitive, and absorbed with their self-images. But Musk eagerly sought the spotlight and cultivated a kind of cultlike adoration at his companies and among his fans. … Bezos, on the other hand, was more guarded,” Stone writes.
The months-long CEO search — which Stone says was led by Susan Harker, Amazon’s vice president of recruiting — was Bezos’ attempt to address the dysfunction and accelerate Blue Origin’s progress. Bezos finally settled on Honeywell Aerospace executive Bob Smith, who quietly took the CEO reins in August 2017.
Blue Origin “had really hit a severe inflection point,” Smith said in a later interview.
So what’s happened since then? Bezos gave a big boost to Blue Origin’s budget and began a steady ramp-up of its workforce. Back in 2016, Blue Origin had 600 employees. Now the headcount exceeds 3,500. Stone writes that Bezos bitterly complained about a proposed budget of $500 million in 2016. But in 2017, Bezos acknowledged to reporters that he intended to sell off at least a billion dollars’ worth of Amazon shares every year to fund the space venture.
“Employees were stunned — that was the first they had heard of it,” Stone says in the book. (Some of the proceeds from the $2.4 billion stock sale that Bezos reported last week will almost surely go to Blue Origin.)
Meyerson has moved on, and now it’s up to Smith to manage expectations. A year after he became CEO, Smith said he expected people to start taking suborbital space trips on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship in 2019, and he predicted that the orbital-class New Glenn rocket would begin flying in 2021. That schedule has since shifted to the right, in part due to COVID-19’s effects: The first crewed New Shepard flight is now set for July, while New Glenn’s debut has been put off until late 2022.
There have been other setbacks: Last year, Blue Origin lost out in the Pentagon’s multibillion-dollar competition for national security launches — and last month, an industry team led by Blue Origin lost out on NASA funding for the development of a crew-capable lunar lander. In both cases, SpaceX prevailed instead.
Would the situation have been different if Shotwell had become Blue Origin’s CEO? You might as well speculate about unicorns dancing around a launch pad: Shotwell has been brutally frank in her assessment of Blue Origin’s prospects. “I don’t think there’s a motivation or a drive there,” she said last year at an investment conference. “They’ve got a ton of money, and they’re not doing a lot.”
Other space snippets from “Amazon Unbound”:
- Stone quotes extensively from an 800-word Bezos memo, informally called “The Welcome Letter,” which has been given to new Blue Origin employees since 2004. “We are a small team committed to seeding an enduring human presence in space,” the memo says. “Blue will pursue this long-term objective patiently, step by step.” Bezos’ memo reportedly sets a course for a crewed orbital vehicle program, with moon missions in the longer term.
- The book also mentions Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine, which has been the focus of a seven-year-long partnership with United Launch Alliance. ULA is planning to use the BE-4 on its next-generation Vulcan rocket — but George Sowers, ULA’s former chief scientist and vice president for advanced programs, told Stone that “ULA executives felt like they were betrayed and lied to” when they found out Blue Origin would also use the BE-4 on its own New Glenn rocket, a potential rival to Vulcan.
- Stone passes along a few details about the places where Blue Origin’s employees unwind, including a “secret garden” with a koi pond at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash.; and an outdoor saloon near Blue Origin’s West Texas launch pad dubbed “Parpie’s Bar” — after the nickname that was given to Bezos’ father, Mike Bezos, by his grandchildren.