Bob Smith is out as CEO of Jeff Bezos’ space tourism baby Blue Origin.
First reported by CNBC and confirmed by Blue Origin to FLYING, Smith will step down to be replaced by Amazon senior vice president of devices and services Dave Limp, who recently announced his own departure.
According to Blue Origin, the changing of the guard will happen on December 4, when Smith effectively retires from his role and Limp steps in. Smith will remain with the company until January 2 “to ensure a smooth transition.”
“[Limp] is a proven innovator with a customer-first mindset,” a company spokesperson told FLYING. “He has extensive experience in the high-tech industry and growing highly complex organizations.”
The spokesperson also touted Smith’s achievements, pointing to Blue Origin’s $10 billion in customer orders and 10,000-plus employees. However, a quick assessment of the company’s business development timeline and reports of a toxic workplace culture from the past few years paint a tumultuous picture of his tenure. Could Limp help Blue Origin course correct?
Who Is Dave Limp?
Bezos probably hopes Limp is the catalyst Blue Origin needs to supplant SpaceX and Virgin Galactic as the regent of modern space travel. But how will the Amazon veteran fit at his new company?
Limp has spent the past 13 years at marketplace behemoth, where he oversaw the development of several novel, high-tech products. Some—Amazon’s Kindle, Fire TV, and Ring doorbell, for example—were successes. Others, such as Alexa and Echo speakers, were…less so. He was involved with the company’s Zoox autonomous vehicle program and its Project Kuiper internet satellite business, a planned competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink, which gives him some aerospace experience.
According to CNBC, he worked closely with Bezos when he was still CEO of Amazon and was trusted to launch some of the billionaire’s favorite projects, Alexa and Echo. The new Blue Origin boss was also part of Amazon’s “S-Team,” a small circle of senior executives across most of the company’s business verticals.
Before joining Amazon, Limp started his career with Apple and held executive positions with software firm Liberate Technologies and smartphone maker Palm, both of which are now defunct.
“I’ve worked closely with [Limp] for many years,” Bezos wrote in a note to Blue Origin employees obtained by CNBC. “He is the right leader at the right time for Blue. Dave is a proven innovator with a customer-first mindset and extensive experience leading and scaling large, complex organizations. Dave has an outstanding sense of urgency, brings energy to everything, and helps teams move very fast.”
Note Bezos’ emphasis on speed. With Smith at the helm, Blue Origin has seemingly fallen behind competitors SpaceX and Virgin Galactic in the modern day space race. Let’s break down where things went wrong—and how Limp could right the ship.
First, the Good
“I’m very excited about the operational excellence and culture of innovation this new leader will bring to Blue, building on the foundation we’ve created over the past few years,” Smith said of Limp’s hiring in a note to Blue Origin employees viewed by CNBC.
He concluded the message with “Gradatim Ferociter,” the company’s latin motto which translates to “step by step, furiously.” The first half of that slogan more accurately describes Smith’s tenure—but let’s start with the good.
Bezos appointed Smith as CEO of Blue Origin in 2017 in a bid to accelerate the development of programs such as the reusable New Shepard suborbital launcher and the New Glenn heavy-lift rocket.
Before that, he was with Honeywell Aerospace for 13 years, serving as vice president and chief technical officer before briefly leading the firm’s mechanical systems and components business. He headed development of components in verticals including air transport, business aviation, and defense and space.
Initially, he led the build-out of Blue Origin infrastructure across the U.S. in preparation for the first suborbital launch of New Shepard. That highly anticipated maiden voyage—which carried Bezos and Star Trek actor William Shatner to the Kármán line in 2021—put the company on the map and was arguably Smith’s greatest success.
“Under [Smith’s] leadership, Blue has grown to several billion dollars in sales orders, with a substantial backlog for our vehicles and engines,” Bezos added in his note. “Our team has increased from 850 people when Bob joined to more than 10,000 today. We’ve expanded from one office in Kent [Washington] to building a launch pad at LC-36 and 5 million square feet of facilities across seven states.”
Since then, New Shepard has completed a handful of commercial launches. But Blue Origin was swiftly hit with an FAA mishap investigation in September 2022 after a booster failure during a test of the rocket’s capsule escape mechanism caused it to crash. The spacecraft hasn’t flown since, and things have gone downhill from there.
Smith has also struggled to launch New Glenn, which was expected to compete with SpaceX’s Starship for heavy-lift orbital contracts from NASA and other agencies. The launcher’s maiden voyage was pushed back from 2020 to late 2022 after delays in development.
In June, it faced another setback when one of the BE-4 engines designed to power it exploded just 10 seconds into a test. The mishap could create a ripple effect for United Launch Alliance, which will use BE-4s to power its Vulcan rocket—however, the company is reportedly confident it will launch on schedule.
Meanwhile, ULA and SpaceX, arguably Blue Origin’s two biggest rivals, secured a pair of Pentagon contracts at the firm’s expense. And there’s a chance the company is snubbed again for upcoming Space Force military missions in favor of those same competitors. CNBC in July reported that SpaceX and ULA are viewed as the front runners, but “there’s a door open” for Blue Origin to swoop in.
Earlier this year, the firm won a $3.4 billion NASA contract to develop its Blue Moon lander for the space agency’s Artemis V mission, which is scheduled to return humans to the moon before the end of the decade. But that was only a half-victory, considering it missed out on the initial award—which went solely to SpaceX. Blue Origin battled the decision in court but lost.
Another NASA contract calls for New Glenn to launch two Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) spacecraft to Mars in 2024. However, there is still no firm launch timeline for the rocket.
New Shepard, meanwhile, will reportedly be back in action next month. It will need to be tested before a potential return to crewed launches scheduled for mid-February, according to Eric Berger of Ars Technica.
Berger unearthed some telling details about how Blue Origin employees perceived Smith.
“Anything is better than Bob,” an anonymous current employee told him.
Berger said he spoke to “dozens” of current and former company employees and that “virtually none of them have had anything positive to say” about Smith’s time with Blue Origin. Last year, close to two dozen anonymous workers accused the departing CEO of fostering a toxic workplace culture characterized by fear, discomfort, and misogyny.
Smith has also come under fire for high turnover, though Blue Origin has since hired aggressively, growing from around 4,000 to 10,000 employees over the past two years.
The Outlook with Limp
Under Smith’s leadership, Blue Origin—once seen as arguably the most promising of a trio of billionaire-backed space tourism firms that also includes SpaceX and Virgin Galactic—has steadily fallen off.
SpaceX, meanwhile, has launched thousands of Starlink satellites and uses its Crew Dragon capsule to conduct International Space Station crew rotation missions for NASA. At the same time, the Elon Musk-led company is dealing with a mishap investigation of its own that has grounded its massive Starship suborbital launcher.
Virgin Galactic has capitalized on both firms’ mistakes. Since June, Richard Branson’s space tourism venture has completed monthly trips to the edge of the atmosphere, each with paying customers. With three commercial missions in the books, the next, Galactic 04, is scheduled for October 5.
All of this means Limp will have some catching up to do. Outside New Shepard, New Glenn, and Blue Moon, Blue Origin is also developing the Orbital Reef private space station, and Smith in July told the Financial Times he hoped to build an international launch site. All of these initiatives will be fighting for Limp’s attention.
Most likely, the new CEO will look to prioritize one piece of the company over the others in a bid to simply get back to orbit. It’s now been more than a year since Blue Origin launched a rocket—and Bezos’ emphasis on speed hints that a rapid return to space is a priority.
New Shepard is a potential suitor for Limp’s focus. The spacecraft is now one year removed from the incident that grounded it, and it could be ready to fly again as soon as next month. Jump-starting the company’s space tourism business could also generate revenue as it struggles to turn a profit on its expensive activities, much like its competitors. Ars Technica’s Berger speculates that Bezos is likely providing about $2 billion per year to keep the dream alive.