Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, says watching his Blue Origin rocket make a safe landing after flying into space rates as one of the greatest moments of his life, and he can’t wait to take a ride himself.
In an exclusive GeekWire interview, conducted on the morning after the New Shepard test mission, Bezos answered questions about what the flight means for Blue Origin, the space venture he founded … why he waited so long to start tweeting … and when the rest of us will get a suborbital space ride. He also stirred the pot in his rivalry with that other billionaire space geek, SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
Here’s a transcript of today’s Q&A, edited for clarity and length:
GeekWire: How does it feel? I saw you spraying folks with champagne this morning … What was it like to have this flight go off today?
Jeff Bezos: I was very optimistic about the flight, but I’ll tell you, when I saw that vehicle land, it was one of the greatest moments of my life. Judging by the fact that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, I’m pretty sure all my teammates here at Blue felt the same way. This is a field that people go into in large part because of real heart and passion, and that team did a remarkable job. It was just incredible.
Q: It sounds as if you might have been wondering for a second whether the rocket would actually land on its feet. Did you have any doubts?
A: You know, I’m an optimist – so I always go into things convinced that they’re going to work. But being sure it’ll work and seeing it work are two different things.
A: Well, first, for spaceflight in general: Full reuse is the holy grail of rocketry. You cannot throw the hardware away every time and expect to ever realistically lower the cost of access to space. It’s just impossible. What we did is an existence proof that you can vertically land from space and reuse the rocket booster. Our architecture is scalable to very large size. So I’m super-excited about that. It’s something that puts us – and not just Blue Origin, but it’s something that puts humanity on the path to eventually having millions of people living and working in space.
You were there for last week’s Apollo F-1 engine unveiling [at Seattle’s Museum of Flight]. If you look at modern rockets today, they still look very much like what you would have seen in the 1960s. You have to get away from expendable rockets if you’re going to the next stage. And the booster is the most important stage to make reusable, because it’s the biggest, most expensive part of a rocket system.
Q: And what does it mean for Blue Origin?
A: For Blue Origin, it’s two things: There’s what it means for our tourism program, and then there’s what it means for our orbital vehicle.
For the tourism program, I’m hopeful that we’re a couple of years away from commercial operations at this point. We consider this the first of many successful test flights. We’re going to conduct a very thorough, very deliberate test program. For the next couple of years, we’re going to fly this vehicle many, many times and put it through a lot of stressing conditions. When we’re completely confident in the vehicle, then we’re going to start selling tickets and putting people on board. That’s very exciting.
As for what it means for our orbital vehicle, one of the reasons I love the vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing architecture is that it’s so scalable. We’re going to take the same architecture we just validated with New Shepard, but at larger scale with our BE-4 engines, and have a completely reusable vertical-landing booster for the orbital vehicle that we’re going to fly out of Cape Canaveral.
Q: Are you going to be like Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and make plans to go on the first commercial flight when New Shepard is ready to take on passengers?
A: I can’t wait to go! I’ve wanted to do this since I was 5 years old. One thing I love about our vehicle architecture is that it flies autonomously, so we can do this very methodical test program without risking any test pilots. We’ll go through this for the next couple of years, and then I can’t wait to climb into that vehicle.
Q: There’s been a lot of buzz over the past couple of hours. SpaceX’s Elon Musk has sent along some tweets, [talking about the difference between suborbital and orbital when it comes to launches and landings]. People are discussing where today’s flight stands in space history. Could you say something about your relationship with Elon? I know you’ve had some controversies, but I also remember hearing that at one time you traded notes about going into space. Are you frenemies?
A: Well, I don’t how to characterize it. The basic Falcon 9 booster is a suborbital stage. In fact, they do a deceleration burn in space that lowers their re-entry conditions. Our re-entry conditions are probably harsher than theirs because of that in-space deceleration burn. They’re not trying to make their orbital stage reusable. They’re working on making their suborbital stage reusable. And that’s what we just did.
Q: This was the first day that you’ve ever tweeted, as far as I know. What took you so long?
A: I wanted to save my first tweet for the world’s first reusable rocket.
Q: I heard that you invited the “Good Morning America” broadcast team to go into space. How liberal are you with those invitations?
A: Are you interested in going?
Q: I think I am, yeah.
A: All right. Well, we’ll put you on the list. I can tell you’re a passionate space guy, and that’s the kind of person we have a soft spot in our heart for. So we’ll keep your name ready.
Q: OK, I’ll hold you to that. … Anything else you’d like to touch on?
A: Well, I hope you can imagine how much passion there is around the room on this team. There are more than 400 people at Blue Origin, and this is just a great achievement of theirs. I’m really proud of the team.
Q: What’s the team doing now? How do you celebrate something like this?
A: We had a party in Seattle, and we had a party here in West Texas. I think people are looking forward to having Thanksgiving dinner and showing the videos to their families and friends.
Q: And you’ll probably be doing the same, I imagine.
A: You can count on it.