Two years and two months ago (July of '21) my daily piece was to relay a story from Ars Technica's Eric Berger that I called "Is It Too Late for Jeff Bezos to Save Blue Origin?" That piece was written the day after what was the company's peak moment; their first manned launch with Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, octogenarian astronaut Wally Funk, and 18 year old Oliver Daemen.
On Monday, the story broke that Bezos had fired the chief executive of Blue, Bob Smith and replaced him with a former vice president from Amazon, Dave Limp, who stepped down as Amazon's vice president of devices and services last month. Writing for Ars Technica is Eric Berger who summed it up this way:
To put things politely, Smith has had a rocky tenure as Blue Origin's chief executive. After being personally vetted and hired by Bezos, Smith took over from Rob Meyerson in 2017. The Honeywell engineer was given a mandate to transform Blue Origin into a large and profitable space business.
As a space reporter, I have spoken with dozens of current and former Blue Origin employees, and virtually none of them have had anything positive to say about Smith's tenure as chief executive. I asked one current employee about the hiring of Limp on Monday afternoon, and their response was, "Anything is better than Bob."
The company has grown enormously, from 1500 people to nearly 11,000. On the other hand, growing a company isn't terribly difficult, in the sense of adding warm bodies who may or may not know what they're doing. The problem is that Smith has been significantly late on a number of key programs, including delivering the BE-4 rocket engines to United Launch Alliance. Delivering them relies on making them manufacturable which Blue needs as well, for getting the New Glenn to fly routinely. Adding people without adding income and building your product line just doesn't mean much.
Smith received consistently low marks for his performance as chief executive of Blue Origin on Glassdoor. I didn't remember until looking up that July '21 story as a starting point that just over two months after that first flight, a group of current and former Blue Origin employees wrote a blistering letter about the company under Smith. The reason behind both of those may well be that Smith came from an old line engineering company, Honeywell, while Blue was selling itself as New Space. It's true that they beat SpaceX to reflying rockets, but they haven't extended that past their "New Shepard" suborbital tourist flights. As always, in any company that lives on innovation, the question is, "so what have you done for me lately?"
As for the new Blue Origin CEO, Dave Limp, pardon me if I don't really see anything that indicates he'll be super. Originally a computer scientist, he began his career at Apple in the mid-1980s directing the North and South American PowerBook division. He worked in venture capital and was chief strategy officer of Palm before joining Amazon in 2010.
At Amazon, Limp had a high-profile job overseeing the development of the company’s consumer electronic devices, including the Kindle, Fire TV, and Echo, as well as the Alexa voice assistant. Some of the shine on Limp's star seemingly wore off in recent years, as Alexa has been perceived to be a "colossal failure" by some accounts and, partly at least, led to Amazon shedding 10,000 jobs.
The only thing approximating space experience that gets mentioned is that his consumer electronics division also oversaw the development of the Project
Kuiper satellite constellation, designed to compete with Starlink. ULA
is about to launch the first two experimental Kuiper satellites next
month on an Atlas V.
He arrives at Blue Origin with a lot of work to do. The company has major programs, including the heavy-lift New Glenn rocket, the Blue Moon lunar lander, and the Orbital Reef space station in the development phase. He must balance these initiatives with the company's ongoing work to scale production of the BE-4 rocket engine as well as the New Shepard suborbital spacecraft.
After the first New Shepard tourist flight, Bob Smith (black ball cap and sweatshirt) walks alongside Jeff Bezos (blue flight suit and floppy white hat) near their flight range in Texas. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Let's wish Blue Origin luck.