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NRO's Sapp and Blue Origin's Bezos
Betty Sapp, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, sits in on a chat with Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon and Blue Origin. (NRO via Twitter)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos paid a visit to the National Reconnaissance Office this week — which fits right in with his plan to participate in national security space missions through his Blue Origin space venture.

Based on the readout from the NRO, the nation’s spy-satellite agency is also interested in what Bezos had to say about technological innovation.

“We cheer every new entrant who’s brave enough to go into the space business,” NRO Director Betty Sapp said during Monday’s meet-up, according to the agency’s Facebook posting.

“You’re obviously an innovator — like few others in the United States — and a real leader in space,” Sapp told Bezos. “Someone who could not only change the way we do business, but you, among others, have helped make space cool again, and that really resonates with us.”

Bezos often notes that he’s been passionate about space travel ever since he watched the Apollo moon landings at the age of 5, and that resonated with Sapp as well. “That’s a love that all of us at the NRO share,” Sapp was quoted as saying in an NRO tweet.

Follow-up tweets said that Bezos shared his views on leadership and innovation, and talked about what’s next for Blue Origin and the orbital-class New Glenn rocket that the company is getting ready to build.

“You cannot innovate without experimenting,” the NRO quoted Bezos as saying. “And if you know in advance that it’s going to work, then it’s not an experiment.”

Bezos returned the NRO’s compliments today in his own Twitter feed:

Blue Origin is developing its New Glenn rocket at a brand-new factory in Florida, with the first launch expected by 2020. Four commercial satellite operators have already signed up for launches.

NRO and the U.S. Air Force currently rely on United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for national security launches. This week the Pentagon announced a new set of launch contracts for GPS and Air Force Space Command satellites, valued at $642 million and split between SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

Will Blue Origin get in on that business? The answer is almost certainly yes. It’s complicated, though: Blue Origin is developing its BE-4 rocket engine not only for New Glenn, but for United Launch Alliance’s rockets as well. Here’s how Bezos put it when I asked him about the subject two years ago:

“Our contribution to national security is going to be making a great BE-4 engine, and then United Launch Alliance is going to use that engine in their vehicle for national security payloads. I’m very excited about that.

“I have to tell you, in my Amazon job the CIA is a big user of Amazon Web Services. It has been very gratifying to be part of that national security mission. Not that I really need any additional passion or motivation for space, but I have to tell you that all of us at Blue Origin find the fact that we are going to get to help with the national security missions incredibly motivating.”

My guess is that Blue Origin will seek to play an influential role on the national security side of the space business while making sure it doesn’t tick off a key partner. That kind of “coopetition” can be tricky to manage — but there are few people more skilled at the game than Amazon’s CEO.

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