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Jeff Bezos wants Elon Musk to know Blue Origin is serious now

I was about halfway through Lex Fridman’s interview with Jeff Bezos, which is longer than Citizen Kane, when I realized what Bezos was up to: this is a warning shot across SpaceX’s bow. “Blue Origin needs to be much faster,” Bezos said. “It’s one of the reasons I left my role as the CEO of Amazon a couple of years ago. I wanted to come in — Blue Origin needs me right now.” The goal, he said, was to make it clear that Blue Origin, his rocket company, needed to speed things up.

Bezos also demonstrated that he understands how shade works: “When I was the CEO of Amazon, my point of view on this is, ‘If I’m the CEO of a publicly traded company, it’s going to get my full attention.’” He didn’t say “Tesla” and didn’t have to. Anyone who watches Fridman is going to know which billionaire he’s talking about.

Look, I like my little jokes about Bezos, but I take him very seriously. He is focused and determined; he does very little without a specific reason. So when he and his gun show appear on a podcast, I assume he has a purpose and listen accordingly. Fridman’s podcast is ideal because it has a following among the tech elite, and because Fridman is a softball interviewer. (He couldn’t even get Bezos to divulge how much he curls!) But that’s not the only thing it’s got going for it. Fridman has a close association with Elon Musk — he rocketed to fame on the back of a controversial study of Tesla, followed by an interview with Musk himself. 

“We need to move much faster and we’re going to.”

So as far as I am concerned, Bezos coming on the Musk fanboy podcast to talk about Blue Origin’s ambitions is basically Lyndon B. Johnson unzipping his pants.

Jeff has been busy! Besides posing for some genuinely incredible photos with his fianceé, he’s also reconfigured leadership at Blue Origin: the CEO, the head of R&D, and the SVP of operations have all departed. The new CEO, Dave Limp, comes pretty much directly from Amazon, where he oversaw Alexa development. New Shepard, the suborbital rocket, is scheduled for its next launch as soon as December 18th; it will be the rocket’s first flight since an engine failure last year.

Blue Origin has projected that its much-delayed New Glenn, the big boy rocket for shooting shit into space, will launch next year with a NASA smallsat mission. Everything moves more slowly in space, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the launch slips to 2025, but this is probably why Bezos is out here saying stuff like, “We need to move much faster and we’re going to.”

New Glenn is the rocket that actually poses a challenge to SpaceX; New Shepard is mainly for space tourism. Compared to SpaceX, Blue Origin has mostly been an also-ran. It’s been around for more than 20 years and hasn’t yet left Earth orbit. Sure, yeah, there’s been a lot of big talk about a space station and a lunar lander contract, but it’s vaporware til it ships, babe. And some of Amazon’s Kuiper satellites — meant to do internet-from-space as a challenge to SpaceX’s Starlink — will be relying on New Glenn, as well as some other as-yet-unproven rockets. Half of those satellites need to go up by 2026. Heat’s on.

Space is big, but US government contracts are a competition

On the Fridman show, Bezos was careful to say that space was big enough for both him and Musk: “There’s room for a bunch of winners and it’s going to happen at all skill levels. And so SpaceX is going to be successful for sure. I want Blue Origin to be successful, and I hope there are another five companies right behind us.” This is a gorgeous PR answer — I hope Bezos gives a raise to whoever coached him into it. Space is big, but US government contracts are a competition, as he surely knows. After all, Blue Origin sued the US government over a contract NASA awarded to SpaceX. It lost.

Coming in behind SpaceX has to be galling to Bezos, who has wanted to go to space since at least high school, according to Brad Stone’s The Everything Store. In that book, Bezos’ high school girlfriend tells Stone that the only reason Bezos earned all that money with Amazon was to finance his space ambitions. Yeah, that’s right: Amazon wasn’t even the point of Amazon.

So why is Bezos out here pounding his chest now? Well, two things. First of all, the shake-up at Blue Origin is something he wants to publicize — the company’s going to move fast now that Bezos is in town. But second, the CEO of SpaceX spent 2023 having a very public meltdown after taking Twitter private in 2022, a process itself that resembled nothing so much as a temper tantrum.

Musk’s ongoing involvement with his social media platform has proved a very high-profile distraction for a man who’s already busy running a car company as well as a rocket company — and this is to say nothing of his involvement with The Boring Company and Neuralink. So beyond what Bezos was saying, part of the point of the podcast was how he was saying it. He wasn’t twitchy, confused about his interviewer’s name, or distracted. He was calm, relaxed, and touting the benefits of having a long attention span. Oh, and did he mention he’s already flown on his own rocket? (Unlike some other billionaires.) That’s how much he trusts Blue Origin — there was never a sliver of doubt in his mind that he and his brother wouldn’t come back.

I couldn’t help but notice how much of the interview that focused on Bezos’ leadership style provided an implicit contrast to Musk

I also have a long attention span. And I couldn’t help but notice how much of the interview that focused on Bezos’ leadership style provided an implicit contrast to Musk. As we learned from Walter Isaacson’s recent hagiography, Musk’s leadership style is “my way or the highway.” By contrast, Bezos told Fridman that “you want to set up your culture so that the most junior person can overrule the most senior person if they have data.” He emphasized that he had often made decisions he personally disagreed with because his subordinate who advocated for that decision was “closer to the ground truth than I am.”

This is a fun spin! Bezos is well known as a spectacularly abrasive leader. And while Bezos told Fridman that he often spoke last in meetings so as not to taint his subordinates’ decisions, he didn’t mention that sometimes he said things like, “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself” or “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” People with long attention spans are often unpleasant, since we also have long memories.

Still, if you’re an American government bureaucrat who’s starting to get twitchy about Musk doing things like, I dunno, replatforming Alex Jones, or retweeting antisemitic conspiracy theories, or scaring away the advertisers that make up 90 percent of Twitter’s revenue, Blue Origin starts to look more appealing. Bezos is at least behaving in public like a grownup, though as he points out, tactfully, about Musk, “you can’t know anyone by their public persona.” But in this case, public perception matters. If Musk is radioactive to wide swaths of the public and government — not an impossibility! — that benefits Bezos. Sure, SpaceX is actually Gwynne Shotwell’s show, but as long as Musk remains its public face, he can damage it.

So if Bezos can get Blue Origin moving with some manner of urgency, the company probably has a better opportunity than it has in years to eat SpaceX’s lunch. A lot has to go right for that, starting with the New Glenn launch, but it’s not impossible. Why was Jeff Bezos on Lex Fridman’s podcast? To tell the world: daddy’s home.

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