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Amazon bought more rockets than any company in history

NASA/Joel Kowsky
A stage big enough for a rocket’s dress rehearsal.
This story was published on our Space Business newsletter, A glimpse at the economic possibilities of space.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published

Dear readers,

Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Amazon primed for launch, SLS waiting on its rehearsal, and pushing for diversity in the space sector.

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When a group of Amazon warehouse workers unionized last week, their leader, Christian Smalls, had a good line: “We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space because while he was up there we were organizing a union.”

But the quip undersells Smalls’ work: Amazon’s strenuous union-busting efforts didn’t cease when Bezos stepped down as the company’s CEO. And it also underestimates the importance of orbit to Amazon itself, as the company just made the largest commercial purchase of rockets ever to launch its planned internet satellite network, Kuiper.

The order for 68 launches over five years, thought to be worth somewhere between $8 and $10 billion, promises to shape the launch industry and low-Earth orbit for decades to come. (Amazon declined to share the cost of the investment or how much it paid up-front to secure these contracts.)

The Kuiper network is expected to include nearly four thousand satellites orbiting the Earth, providing connectivity and offering lucrative new capabilities to Amazon Web Services, the company’s lucrative cloud-computing business.

Of the rockets that Amazon bought—12 New Glenns from Bezos’ Blue Origin, 18 Ariane 6 rockets from Europe’s Arianespace, and 38 Vulcan rockets from United Launch Alliance—none have flown yet, or even completed testing. Amazon had previously bought nine Atlas V launches from ULA and two from ABL Space Systems to begin putting spacecraft in orbit in the near-term.

What does the mega-deal mean?

  • Amazon is betting space will be business as usual. The decision to build Kuiper at Amazon, rather than at Blue Origin, always presented an interesting contrast to Elon Musk’s vertically integrated space company. Amazon sources tell me that the proposal for a satellite network emerged organically in a corporate planning exercise, not as a top-down directive from the company’s space-obsessed founder. The same interest in space, after all, has popped up at Facebook, Google, and even Apple, but despite significant investment, none have made a dent in orbit. Can the e-commerce giant succeed where the social network, search, and gadget kings failed? With these contracts, there’s not much room to cut losses, even for a balance sheet as massive as Amazon’s.
  • A boost for SpaceX’s competitors. SpaceX didn’t win any contracts, and it’s not clear if they were invited to bid—or if they have the spare capacity to sell as many launches as Kuiper apparently needs. But the revenues their competitors will now receive (and the changes in design they prompted) will help push these companies to finally match SpaceX’s innovation.
  • Bad news for the “constellation class.” Any number of small rocket start-ups, including several that have gone public, pitch themselves as the ideal launchers for large satellite networks like Kuiper. Their absence from this deal suggests their niche will be replacing failed spacecraft on a limited scale, rather than long-term (and lucrative) launch campaigns. The cost advantages of large launchers and the growing mass of new satellites could mean less available business for small launchers.
  • There will be crowded orbits. The growth in satellite activity close to Earth isn’t going to slow down anytime soon, and that means more work for policymakers developing new norms for space safety, astronomers figuring out how to keep making observations, and start-ups trying to track space junk and stop dangerous collisions.

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Imagery interlude

A run-through of pre-flight procedures for the Space Launch System Moon rocket has been paused after a series of minor challenges loading ultra-chilled propellant into the rocket. The wet dress rehearsal, as the process is known, won’t be re-started until after a SpaceX launch expected April 8.

Image copyright: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA officials say the problems they’ve encountered are typical of the first efforts to operate a complicated and powerful launch system like this one. The Boeing-built rocket is gearing up to send an uncrewed mission around the Moon later this year as the first step in the Artemis program, but NASA needs to work out the kinks in the never-before-flown vehicle.

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SPACE DEBRIS

The first US flight of private astronauts heads for ISS. A SpaceX Dragon purchased by Axiom Space is expected to carry four passengers to the International Space Station on April 8. It’s the first time a US vehicle has brought paying passengers to the orbital habitat, and represents a major step in developing new, commercially operated labs in low-Earth orbit.

Private satellites continue to play a major role in Ukraine. It’s no surprise that satellite imagery helped debunk Russia’s efforts to spin its responsibility for apparent war crimes in Bucha. The imagery they collect has driven public understanding of the war, and the conflict has raised the profile of how the technology enables independent analysts to keep governments honest.

Rocket Reuse Lab. The next launch of the Rocket Lab Electron rocket will see the first attempt to use a helicopter to snatch the vehicle’s booster out of the air for future reuse. (Here’s a video demoing the procedure.) If brought into regular use, the capability  could help drive down the cost of the Electron as the market for small rockets starts to become more competitive.

(Some) space companies sign diversity pledge. At this year’s Space Symposium, a major industry gathering, the CEOs of 24 space companies signed a pledge to improve the diversity at their firms. The pledge itself is vague but at least promises to share high-level statistics next year. The signatories include a who’s who of major space employers, with two glaring exceptions: Blue Origin, where employees have complained about a toxic culture driven by Jeff Bezos, and SpaceX, which faced a federal investigation into potentially discriminatory hiring practices last year.

Astranis buys a Falcon 9. The Andreesen Horowitz-backed start-up will launch four communications satellites on the rocket in 2023, including one dedicated for use by Peru, in its first major deployment of hardware to orbit.

Happy Anniversary! This week marks eleven years of NASA’s commercial crew program, which funded the development of passenger vehicles like SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s still-delayed Starliner. The agency’s investment in private space activity played a key role in today’s booming space economy.

Your pal,

Tim

This was issue 128 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your hot takes on Amazon’s rocket spree, hopes for the Axiom 1 mission, tips, and informed opinions to tim@qz.com.

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