Investing in Space

SpaceX president knocks Bezos' Blue Origin: 'They have a billion dollars of free money every year'

Key Points
  • SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell spoke candidly at an investor conference in New York City on Friday.
  • "They have a billion dollars of free money every year from him," Shotwell said of SpaceX's competitor Blue Origin and its founder Jeff Bezos.
  • Shotwell also claimed SpaceX's internet network Starlink is far ahead of Softbank-banked OneWeb, saying "we have far more capacity per satellite than our competitors."
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX COO
Getty Images

NEW YORK CITY – SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell knocked competitor Blue Origin in candid comments on Friday, giving her take on why Elon Musk's rockets have launched hundreds of spacecraft while Jeff Bezos' has not.

"They're two years older than us, and they have yet to reach orbit," Shotwell said during the Baron Fund's annual investment conference at the Metropolitan Opera House. "They have a billion dollars of free money every year from [Bezos]."

Billionaire investor Ron Baron asked Shotwell why Blue Origin, which is owned and funded almost entirely by the Amazon founder, hadn't accomplished what SpaceX has. Baron's mutual fund owns about $150 million in SpaceX shares and manages over $30 billion in total assets.

Bezos and Musk both founded their respective companies in the early 2000s to explore space and push the limits of rocketry. SpaceX has sent three different rocket designs to orbit, each multiple times, and is building a fourth. Blue Origin, on the other hand, has only flown suborbital rocket flights of at altitudes of a few hundred thousand feet. It's in the early stages of assembling its first rocket capable of reaching orbit.

Baron pointed out that Bezos, as the world's wealthiest man, has more than enough money, asking Shotwell, "So why hasn't he done this?"

"I think engineers think better when they're pushed hardest to do great things in a very short period of time, with very few resources. Not when you have twenty years," Shotwell said. "I don't think there's a motivation or a drive there."

Both ventures have remained private — one of the factors Shotwell credits for SpaceX's success. But she believes Blue Origin has not taken on nearly as much risk.

"They've got a ton of money, and they're not doing a lot," Shotwell said.

Blue Origin declined CNBC's request for comment.

Shotwell began the interview with Baron by saying she intended to "be a little bit careful" when talking about competitors. Still, the conversation included her views of Bezos' other company Amazon, in addition to Blue Origin. Like SpaceX, Amazon is working on an satellite internet constellation called Project Kuiper.

The leader of Bezos' program used to be the vice president of Starlink, until Musk fired him in June 2018. SpaceX launched its first 60 Starlink satellites in May, while Project Kuiper's plan was only unveiled last year.

"He's years behind" in the internet satellite race, Shotwell said of Bezos.

SpaceX is using its own Falcon 9 rockets to launch its satellites, a tactic Bezos may copy by having Blue Origin launch Project Kuiper satellites. But, for the most part, SpaceX has a key advantage in the satellite internet race.

"Everyone else is buying much more expensive launch than we are, and launch is substantial cost to constellations," Shotwell said.

Shotwell's warning against OneWeb

OneWeb is also racing to build an interconnected network of satellites, known as a constellation, to provide consumer internet.

SpaceX's first Starlink launch in May was just a few months after OneWeb launched its first 6 satellites. OneWeb has raised more than $2 billion to fund its effort and has either partnered with or received investment from SoftBank, Qualcomm, Airbus, Virgin Group, Coca-Cola, Maxar Technologies, Hughes Communications and Intelsat.

By comparison, SpaceX has raised $1.3 billion this year, which Musk has said is largely to build and launch Starlink satellites.

But Shotwell claimed Starlink is far ahead of OneWeb, saying "we have far more capacity per satellite than our competitors."

"Our competitors are largely these new entrants to the market. OneWeb? We are 17 times better per bit," Shotwell said.

The SpaceX leader didn't stop at a comparison, giving the opera house full of investors an ominous warning about backing OneWeb.

"If you're thinking about investing in OneWeb, I would recommend strongly against it. They fooled some people who are going to be pretty disappointed in the near term," Shotwell said.

In response to CNBC's request for comment, OneWeb stated that the industry is "at the beginning of a new era" as the internet satellite race accelerates.

"We are not in the business of commenting on competitors. OneWeb's satellites and constellation design are tested, market leading and we are excited to start our monthly launches soon and to start delivering much needed connectivity to people everywhere," OneWeb spokesperson Katie Dowd said in a statement.

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Taking on the defense contractors

SpaceX's rocket business competes directly with United Launch Alliance (ULA) – a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin – for lucrative U.S. launch contracts. SpaceX and ULA are the Department of Defense's top choices to launch massive government satellites, which are often lucrative contracts of $100 million per launch or more.

In addition to the national security launches, the space divisions of both defense giants have won billions in contracts to build Space Launch System (SLS) rockets and Orion capsules for NASA. That's intended for NASA's Artemis program, as President Donald Trump's administration has tasked the agency with returning U.S. astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024.

But SLS is expected to cost more than $1 billion per launch and is years behind schedule. Additionally, while SpaceX has successfully landed its rocket boosters 44 times, reusing some as many as three times, ULA's rockets are expendable —meaning the main part of the rocket falls into the ocean.

"I think it was because we developed with private money that we could go as fast as we wanted," Shotwell said. "You can tolerate failure."

She contrasted Boeing and Lockheed Martin's approach to the space industry with Europe's Arianespace, which she said "has been very candid" about its government space programs.

"The European space program is largely a program to keep technologists and engineers employed," Shotwell said. "If you can reuse your rocket then you don't have a giant population building new ones."

SpaceX has steadily reduced its prices, with current SpaceX launch contracts going for as little as $50 million to $60 million, in many cases 40% less than competitor pricing. Moreover, SpaceX has simultaneously increased its launches per year, setting a company record of 21 last year.

"Let's spend more money on abilities in space and enterprise in space and get technology to the point where we can all go to space," Shotwell said.

"But Boeing and Lockheed like their cushy situation," Shotwell added.

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