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 has to be much faster,” Bezos said. “It’s one of the reasons I left my role as CEO of Amazon a few years ago. I wanted to come in; Blue Origin needs me now. The goal, he said, was to make the point that Blue Origin, his rocket company, needed to speed things up.
Bezos also showed that he understands how shadows work: “When I was CEO of Amazon, my position on this was, ‘If I’m the CEO of a publicly traded company, it’s going to get my full attention.'” He didn’t say ‘Tesla’ and that wasn’t necessary. Anyone who watches Fridman knows which billionaire he is talking about.
Look, I like my Bezos jokes, but I’ll take him terribly serious. 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 reveal how much he curls!) But that’s not the only thing going on. Fridman has a close relationship with Elon Musk – he rose to fame thanks to a controversial investigation into Tesla, followed by an interview with Musk himself.
“We have to move much faster and we will do that.”
So as far as I’m concerned, Bezos coming on Musk’s fanboy podcast to talk about Blue Origin’s ambitions is basically Lyndon B. Johnson unzipping his pants.
Jef has been busy! In addition to posing for some truly incredible photos with his fiancée, he has also reconfigured the leadership at Blue Origin: the CEO, the head of R&D, and the SVP of operations have all left. The new CEO, Dave Limp, comes almost directly from Amazon, where he oversaw the development of Alexa. New Shepard, the suborbital rocket, is scheduled for its next launch as soon as December 18; it will be the rocket’s first flight since an engine failure last year.
Blue Origin has predicted that the much-delayed New Glenn, the big boy rocket that can shoot things into space, will launch next year on a NASA smallsat mission. Everything moves slower in space, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the launch moves to 2025, but this is probably why Bezos is here saying things like, “We need to move much faster and we will.”
New Glenn is the rocket that actually poses a challenge for SpaceX; New Shepard is mainly intended for space tourism. Compared to SpaceX, Blue Origin is largely too run. It has been around for more than twenty years and has not yet left Earth’s orbit. Sure, yes, there’s been a lot of talk about a space station and a lunar lander contract, but it’s vaporware until it ships, baby. And some of Amazon’s Kuiper satellites — intended to use internet from space as a challenge to SpaceX’s Starlink — will rely on New Glenn, as well as some other as-yet unproven rockets. Half of those satellites should be up by 2026. The heat is on.
Space is big, but U.S. government contracts are a competitive battle
During the Fridman show, Bezos was careful to say that the 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 scales. And so SpaceX will certainly be successful. I want Blue Origin to be successful and I hope there are five more companies behind us.” This is a great PR response – I hope Bezos gives a raise to whoever coached him on this. Space is big, but U.S. government contracts are a competitive battle, as he surely knows. After all, Blue Origin sued the US government over a contract NASA awarded to SpaceX. It lost.
Getting behind SpaceX must be annoying for Bezos, who has wanted to go to space since high school, according to Brad Stone’s The Everything Shop. In that book, Bezos’ high school girlfriend tells Stone that the only reason Bezos made all that money at Amazon was to finance his space ambitions. Yes that’s right: Amazon wasn’t even the goal of Amazon.
So why is Bezos pounding his chest here now? Well, two things. First, he wants to highlight the shakeup at Blue Origin: the company is moving forward quickly now that Bezos is in town. But second, the CEO of SpaceX had a very public meltdown in 2023 after taking Twitter private in 2022, a process in itself that was nothing so much as a tantrum.
Musk’s continued involvement with his social media platform has proven to be a very glaring distraction for a man already busy running both a car company and a rocket company — not to mention his involvement with The Boring Company and Neuralink. So apart from what Bezos said, part of the point of the podcast was: How he said it. He wasn’t nervous, confused about his interviewer’s name, or distracted. He was calm, relaxed and extolled the benefits of a long attention span. Oh, and did he mention he’s already flown his own rocket? (Unlike some other billionaires.) That’s how much he trusts Blue Origin – there was never a glimmer of doubt in his mind that he and his brother wouldn’t come back.
I was struck by how much of the interview focusing on Bezos’ leadership style was an implicit contrast with Musk
I also have a long attention span. And I was struck by how much of the interview focusing on Bezos’ leadership style was an implicit contrast with Musk. As we learned from Walter Isaacson’s recent hagiography, Musk’s leadership style is “my way or the highway.” In contrast, Bezos told Fridman that “you want to structure your culture so that the youngest person can overrule the highest person if they have data.” He emphasized that he had often made decisions that 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 twist! Bezos is known as a spectacularly abrasive leader. And while Bezos told Fridman that he often spoke last in meetings so as not to spoil his subordinates’ decisions, he didn’t mention that he sometimes said things like, “If I hear that idea one more time, I’m going to have to kill myself.” ‘ or ‘Are you lazy or just incompetent?’ People with long attention spans are often obnoxious because we also have long memories.
But if you’re a US government bureaucrat who’s starting to get nervous when Musk does things like, I don’t know, replatforms Alex Jones, or retweets anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, or drives away the advertisers that make up 90 percent of Twitter’s revenue, then Blue Origin’s plan is starting to look more attractive. At least Bezos acts like an adult in public, but as he tactfully notes about Musk, “you can’t know anyone by their public persona.” But in this case, public perception matters. If Musk is radioactive to large parts of the public and the government – not an impossibility! – that benefits Bezos. Sure, SpaceX is basically Gwynne Shotwell’s show, but as long as Musk remains the public face, he can damage it.
So if Bezos can get Blue Origin moving with some urgency, the company likely has a better chance than it has had in years of eating SpaceX’s lunch. A lot has to go right for this to happen, starting with the launch of the New Glenn, but that is not impossible. Why was Jeff Bezos on Lex Fridman’s podcast? To tell the world: daddy’s house.
Correction: This story originally quoted Jeff Bezos as saying “winners at all skill levels.” I misunderstood! According to the transcript, Bezos says “winners on all scales.” We regret the error.