Science Spacebound First Look

The tortoise: Blue Origin sees small steps as key to space business

While SpaceX pursues an accelerated path to the moon and beyond, Jeff Bezos maintains that small, incremental progress will help Blue Origin prosper in the long run.

An artist's illustration depicts the capsule that Blue Origin plans to use to take tourist into space.
Blue Origin/AP | Caption

A week after SpaceX founder Elon Musk stole headlines with his proposal to send two paying customers on a flight around the moon next year, another private space company came out with more modest news.

Blue Origin, founded by Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos, has contracted with French telecom firm Eutelsat to send a communications satellite into orbit on its New Glenn rocket, scheduled for completion in 2020.

Since its founding in 2009, SpaceX has already carved out a niche in the satellite-launch market and resupplied the International Space Station. Meanwhile, Mr. Bezos’s 16-year-old firm has only flown its New Shepard capsule and booster rocket to the edge of space.

But Blue Origin sports a tortoise on its coat of arms, and Mr. Bezos appears content to play that role to Mr. Musk’s hare. He says he's confident that small, incremental progress will help Blue Origin prosper in the long run.

“I like to do things incrementally,” Bezos remarked during Tuesday’s Satellite 2017 Conference in Washington, The New York Times reports. His company’s motto, “gradatim ferociter,” means “Step by step, ferociously.”

Eutelsat rewarded this approach in its decision to grant Blue Origin the contract. While the company has launched satellites with SpaceX in the past, Eutelsat's chief executive, Rodolphe Belmer, suggested that Blue Origin's slow and steady approach better aligns with that of his company.

“Blue Origin has been forthcoming with Eutelsat on its strategy and convinced us they have the right mindset to compete in the launch service industry," Mr. Belmer said in a press release. "Their solid engineering approach ... corresponds to what we expect from our industrial partners.”

While some have praised SpaceX's ambition, concerns are growing that, under Musk’s accelerated timelines, “people working for the company might be run ragged by the demands, leading to human errors,” as The Christian Science Monitor reported last week.

SpaceX has repeatedly pushed back its target date for flying a crewed mission, raising eyebrows about its ability to make good on its promise to carry customers around the moon by next year.

"SpaceX has a great record of doing exactly what they say they're going to do but always several years later than they said they were going to do it,” astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told the Monitor last week.

Dr. McDowell, who teaches at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, made clear that he had “full confidence” that SpaceX would succeed in sending space tourists around the moon, but suggested 2020 might be a more likely deadline.

That would give Blue Origin more time to hone its technology and broaden its activities. In addition to satellite launches, the company plans to send deep-pocketed tourists into space aboard New Shepard, an activity that Bezos says will help the company further refine its technology – and create a profitable business model for more ambitious space ventures.

"The tourism mission is very important,” he said on Tuesday, CNBC reports. “There are many historical cases where entertainment drives technologies that then become very practical for other things."

And while low-Earth orbit may not seem as exciting as the moon, Bezos’s goals are no less ambitious than Musk’s.

“The long-term vision is millions of people living and working in space,” he said Tuesday, according to The New York Times.

Give us your feedback, please.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.