COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, wasn’t focused on creating America’s biggest online retailer when he was a boy. But he often says that he’s been obsessed with outer space since the age of 5, when he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
That means he’s had a lot of time to think about how spaceflight should be done, and what kind of future is in store beyond our home planet. It’s what led him to create a space venture called Blue Origin a decade and a half ago. Now Blue Origin is taking off in a big way, literally: Over the past six months, Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket ship has gone through three successful launch-and-landing tests. People could start taking test flights on New Shepard as early as next year, with paying passengers due to climb aboard in 2018.
At this week’s 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Bezos and I were on stage for a “fireside chat” during which the Amazon CEO discussed his vision for space travel. The “fireside” was purely figurative, but the chat nevertheless sparked some deep thoughts about Blue Origin’s business model, the state of the space industry and humanity’s future on the final frontier. Here’s an edited transcript:
Alan Boyle: You’ve learned a lot about how this space thing is done over the past, has it been 16 years?
Jeff Bezos: Actually, it depends on how you count. I’ve been obsessed over rockets, rocket engines and spaceflights since I was 5 years old. So in some ways, it’s 47 years. In others, it’s about 15. I started Blue Origin about 15 years ago.
Alan Boyle: And you’ve got this other little company called Amazon.
Jeff Bezos: Yes, that’s my day job.
Alan Boyle: How would you compare the way that things were when you started Amazon, as opposed to the way things are in the space industry right now?
Jeff Bezos: It’s very interesting, because I want to see the kind of explosive growth that we’ve seen on the Internet with all of the entrepreneurship and dynamism. It’s been a kind of a golden age that you’ve seen over the last 20 years. Amazon opened its doors in 1995, so that’s 21 years ago. When we opened our doors, we had 10 employees. I was driving the packages to the post office myself in my 1987 Chevy Blazer and dreaming one day that we might have a forklift.
Today we deliver 5 billion-plus units a year, we have $100 billion in sales, hundreds of thousands of employees, and we’re not alone. If you look at the Internet, that’s a big industry now, made up of a bunch of very healthy, entrepreneurial, thriving companies of all shapes and sizes, pursuing different missions. It’s very dynamic and very exciting. That happened very fast … just two decades to see that kind of dynamism unfold.
I can tell you why it happened. If you think about e-commerce, all of the heavy lifting was already done. We had all these big pieces of infrastructure in place. For Amazon to be an e-commerce company in 1995, we didn’t have to roll out a national transportation network to deliver parcel packages. The Postal Service was already there. UPS was already there. That would have been billions of dollars in assets and taken many decades to deploy, but it was already there. It wasn’t there for e-commerce, it was there for other reasons.
Same thing, the Internet, we had a phone network. You remember these little modems that we could attach, these acoustic modems, and we could do Internet in early days standing on top of another huge piece of infrastructure which was the local and long distance telephone network. It wasn’t designed for the Internet. It wasn’t designed for e-commerce. It was designed for voice calls, but it was there. Same thing with remote payments: You had credit cards and so on. So there were a bunch of pieces already existing.
If you want to see a dynamic golden age with entrepreneurial energy where thousands of entrepreneurs could be doing amazing things in space, we can’t do that. We haven’t seen that in 50 years, and the reason we haven’t seen it is because the big heavy lifting pieces are not yet in place. There may be multiple things that would have to happen before you can see that kind of gigantic leap, but I don’t think so. I really think it’s just one big piece, and it’s that we need much lower-cost access to space.
Right now, only the most important applications can make their way to space because of the costs to get there, and so we are at a certain equilibrium. That equilibrium isn’t taking us far enough, fast enough. If you look at the number of launches, I think in a very good year, these days maybe we have 50 launches. I’m talking about planetwide through all of humanity, 50 launches. That’s actually down. If you go back in time 30 years, our launch rates were a little higher.
This is Blue Origin’s mission. Our mission is to try and put in place some of that heavy lifting infrastructure: Make access to space at much lower cost so that thousands of entrepreneurs can do amazing and interesting things, and take us into the next era. I’m very excited about it. We only need two things to be able to do it: reusability and practice. Reusability is essential because you can never lower the costs to a sufficient degree if you throw the hardware away. That hardware is just too beautiful. First of all, it’s just painful. You get this great feeling when looking at a piece of aerospace-grade hardware. It’s so beautiful and so precise. To use it once and throw it away is a kind of crime.
And then practice: We humans don’t get great at things we do a dozen times a year. The most used launch vehicles fly a dozen times a year. That’s just not enough to get great at it. You never want to get a surgeon [who does the operation just a dozen times a year]. If you need to have a surgery, find somebody who does the operation 20 to 25 times a week. That’s the right level of practice. That’s why I’m so excited about the tourism mission, because it exercises all the kinds of systems. In fact, in the case of our BE-3 engine, it even exercises the actual engine we’ll use on day on upper stages and during in-space missions. We’ll put a bigger nozzle on it for in-space missions, but it will be the same valve, the same power pack, the same thrust chamber. It’s going to be the same engine. It will be the most tested, most practiced hydrogen engine anywhere in the world, because it’s going to be doing this very inexpensive tourism mission.
Alan Boyle: Jeff, you’re not the only one who is looking at that aspect of re-usability and practice. There’s Elon Musk, for example. You had your reusable rocket landing. The latest one was just this month. And just in the last few days, Elon had a rocket land on an at-sea platform. Richard Branson is involved, too, [with Virgin Galactic]. There’s been a lot of talk about who has the best approach. How is that space ecosystem coming together? Is this a dog-eat-dog world, or is this a rising tide that lifts all boats?
Jeff Bezos: That’s what I think. Oftentimes, it’s very natural to think of business competition like a sporting event. In a sporting event, there actually is a winner and a loser. Somebody leaves the arena a winner, and somebody leaves the arena a loser. In business, it’s usually a little different from that. Great industries are usually built by not just one, or two or three companies, but usually by dozens of companies. There can be many winners, even hundreds and thousands of companies in a truly great industry. I think that’s what we are headed toward here. From my point of view, the more, the merrier. I want Virgin Galactic to succeed, I want SpaceX to succeed, I want United Launch Alliance to succeed, I want Arianespace to succeed, and of course I want Blue Origin to succeed. And I think they all can.
Alan Boyle: Do you have any particular sectors that you are looking at? For example when you started Amazon, you started with books. That was a kind of a killer app for Amazon. Is there a similar killer app for Blue Origin?
Jeff Bezos: You could say that space tourism might be the books equivalent for Blue Origin. We are working on an orbital vehicle now. We launch from Pad 36 [at Cape Canaveral, Fla.]. It uses the BE-4 engine, which is also going to fly on United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan vehicle. …
What we use over and over again at Blue is a particular strategy where we choose a medium-performing version of a high-performing architecture, so the BE-4 engine uses the same oxygen-rich stage combustion cycle. It’s a very high-performing rocket engine cycle – the same one that the [Russian-made] RD-180 uses, but the difference is that we operate at lower chamber pressures than the RD-180 and still can get very high performance. It adds a lot of margin when you look at things like wall compatibility and heat transfer rates and so on, to go down from that. When you get into a development effort like the space shuttle main engine or the RD-180, that’s when you are doing a high-performing version of a high-performing architecture. You are getting the last few seconds of specific impulse, and you really pay a very big price for doing the high-performing version.
If you choose a medium-performing architecture or a low-performing architecture, you get cornered into a place where you have to go for the high-performing version of the medium-performing architecture, so that’s why I go for high-performing architectures but don’t go for the last bit of performance in that architecture.
Alan Boyle: There have been some questions about how you scale from suborbital to orbital operations. For example, Elon Musk started going right to orbital. But do you see suborbital as a valid testing ground? Are there lessons you are learning?
Jeff Bezos: For sure. … Look, there are a bunch of reusability architectures. I hope they all get tried, because I want something to work, and work really well. The propulsive landing, the vertical landing architecture is what I like because it is the easiest one to scale. Other architectures, you can have wings and you can fly back to the launch site. You can have parachutes. Kistler Aerospace was a big proponent of reusing the first stage using a parachute landing and airbags. Totally workable, it can be done. But what’s great about vertical landing is, it’s so scalable. You’re solving the “inverted pendulum” problem. The bigger the inverted pendulum gets, the higher its moment of inertia, and the easier it is to keep balance, and the easier it is to land and to reject disturbances, wind shear and so on.
Our New Shepard vehicle has the smallest vertical landing booster we’ll ever build. Our orbital vehicle is much, much larger. In terms of the landing segment, which is the most challenging segment on this kind of mission, that part of the segment just gets easier with scale. In fact, in general, rockets want to be big. There are a lot of things that scale really well on rockets, and then there’s one thing that doesn’t scale well with rockets, and that’s manufacturing facilities. As you get big, you pay the price with everything on the ground. Manufacturing, transportation facilities, test facilities, all those things get harder. But rotating the scenery, for example, turbo pumps, they love to be big. A big turbo pump even with generous clearances can be very efficient. Same thing with rocket engine thrust chambers. They scale really well, and it turns out vertical landing likes the same thing. The bigger, the better, as far as vertical landing is concerned.
Alan Boyle: We’re getting some questions that are being texted to us, and here’s the first one. Are there plans for Blue Origin to start providing other types of infrastructure besides launch? For example, satellites.
Jeff Bezos: No. We don’t have any plans to start making satellites. Our orbital vehicle will be available to launch satellites, and I think that’s an important market. We’ll be one of the many participants working to drive down the cost of launching satellites.
Alan Boyle: You’re very focused on launch, and it sounds like you’re leaving the satellite market to others. Are there other markets that you are going to be leaving to others? For example, there’s a lot of talk about national security launches.
Jeff Bezos: 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.
Alan Boyle: A couple of questions: Is Amazon just a bank to finance Blue Origin? And were there any organizations that were influential or helped you out in college to foster your love of space?
Jeff Bezos: Yes, in fact, my high-school girlfriend has been interviewed in the media, and has said that she is sure Amazon exists solely to create money for Blue Origin. I can neither confirm nor deny that. …
My love of space was already well-entrenched long before college. My love of space comes from being imprinted at age 5 watching Neil Armstrong step on the surface of the moon. I remember how excited everybody was, and I got very excited about that. We should choose to go to space for many reasons, and I think it’s really important for a whole bunch of reasons including national security. But one of the things is, I think it’s very inspiring for a certain kind of young kid to watch these missions, and it leads them into science, and engineering, and math. I think that’s really good for the United States. I think it’s really good for the world.
Alan Boyle: Another question. What is your envisioned model for training space tourists?
Jeff Bezos: For the suborbital mission, training is going to be relatively simple. One of the things you have to be able to do is emergency egress. We’ll train people for that. One of the things that you have to be able to do is get out of your seat and get back into your seat. We want people to be able to get out, float around, do somersaults, enjoy microgravity, look out those beautiful windows, get up close. So we need to be able to train people to get out of their seats and then be able to get back into them and buckle themselves in securely. It’s an 11- or 12-minute mission. It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of training. It takes a little bit of training. It won’t be a difficult thing to train for.
— Jack Yeh ? (@jckyeh) April 12, 2016
Alan Boyle: We already know that you’ve tried out the seats. Have you done zero-G and centrifuge training?
Jeff Bezos: I haven’t done zero-G, but I went to the Air Force base in Ohio where they have a human-rated centrifuge. I simulated flying our mission. It was very fun, and definitely recommend to any of you who get a chance to get inside a human-rated centrifuge, do it. It’s a cool experience. [Although] if you’re subject to motion sickness, you might not want to do that.
Alan Boyle: I’m sure you get asked all the time when you are going to go up into space, and what the plan is.
Jeff Bezos: Yes. I’ll go up in New Shepard for the suborbital mission, then I’ll go into space in our orbital vehicle as well at some point. I want to go into space, but I want to do it in Blue Origin vehicles. Even though I do want to go into space, as a personal thing … it’s not what’s important to me. What’s important to me is lowering the cost of access to space. I’ve been approached of course for taking the Soyuz up to the space station. … I’m definitely in their target market, and was pitched multiple times that you need to do the Soyuz.
The Soyuz is theoretically designed to do a lunar flyby and then re-enter. So I looked at this, and it was expensive. Like $200 million or something. I said, “Yeah, but, you know, has it ever been tested?’ And they were like, ‘Well, no.” I said, “Well, isn’t that a little risky?” They said, “For 400 million dollars, we’ll test it for you.” I don’t know. Maybe I’ll wait on that one.
Alan Boyle: We’re getting a cluster of questions talking about what the road ahead looks like. For example, will you try point-to-point commercial travel? What applications do you see besides suborbital tourism flights?
Jeff Bezos: We’re not working on point-to-point travel today. I think that is an interesting application, and I think one of the good ways to do that is exo-atmospherically. You could also do hypersonic travel in the atmosphere, and people are working on that, too. I think that’s also a good thing to work on. We’re very focused right now on the BE-4 engine and the New Shepard suborbital mission, and then our orbital vehicle, so that’s enough for us right now.
Alan Boyle: What do you see is the most significant threat to a thriving suborbital space tourism and a low-Earth-orbit economy, and what is the greatest opportunity?
Jeff Bezos: Let’s take the low-Earth-orbit version of this. I want millions of people living and working in space. I want us to be a spacefaring civilization. By the way, my motivation is that I don’t want Plan B to be “Good news! Earth got destroyed by a big comet, but we live on Mars.” I think we need to explore and utilize space in order to save the Earth. This Earth is an unbelievably unique planet. I am pretty darn sure it’s so well adapted to us that we might have even evolved here. That’s what I think. I don’t want to judge before all the facts are in, but this planet is pretty good for us, and it’s pretty unique in the solar system and we need to keep it safe.
There’s a simple calculation that you can do, but it always startles people. It’s the power of compounding. You take humanity’s energy usage today and compound it at just 3 percent a year, which is not that much. I happen to be in the ranks of those people who think that our civilization relies on growth and continuing to use energy. I like a lot of the things that come along with civilization, like medicine and getting to come to Space Symposium and a lot of interesting things in life.
I think we want to continue to progress our civilization, and to do that, we need to continue to progress our energy usage. Take current energy usage planetwide. Compound it to 3 percent a year. And by the way, I think 3 percent could be low, because so many people are coming up out of poverty, which is a good thing. But as soon as they do that, the first thing that they want to do is use more energy. In just a handful of centuries, you will have to cover the entire Earth with solar cells, or at least all of the land mass of the Earth with solar cells.
Of course that’s completely impractical, so we are going to go into space. We need to do so, in order to continue to grow our civilization and at the same time keep this jewel of a planet the way it is. I think we will do that. I’m very, very optimistic that we as a species will figure that out.
Alan Boyle: I’ve heard you say before that what you are aiming for is a “Great Inversion” where you take a lot of the industries that are on Earth and put them into space.
Jeff Bezos: Yeah. Right now, everything that we take into space, we make here on Earth. At some point in the future, we’ll start to take advantage of useful bulk materials in space. Maybe we’ll have a good source of water that we can find in space, and we can break that down and use it to make bulk fuel, and oxygen, and propellant.
At that point, we’ll cover bulk elements that we’ll get from space, but we’ll still bring all the “vitamins.” It’s going to be a long time before we can make microprocessors and solar cells in space, so we’ll make the microprocessors here on Earth, and we’ll cart them up from Earth into space. But there will be an inversion, I predict. This is a long-scale prediction.
Eventually, all the giant silicon fabs and so on will operate much more efficiently in space where they have access to nearly unlimited energy supplies and nearly unlimited raw materials, and then we’ll send the vitamins back down to Earth. [Editor’s note: In this context, “vitamins” refers to any small, lightweight stuff of extraordinary value.] We’ll make all of our vitamins in space and we’ll just send the microprocessors down to Earth. Then Earth can eventually be zoned residential and light industry, and we can move all of our heavy industry off planet where it belongs, where it has easy access to solar power and other forms of energy.
Alan Boyle: The time has slipped away like the fuel in a New Shepard suborbital vehicle, but I did have on last question that somebody sent in, which I think is apt for the Space Symposium. This is our first symposium, but someone is asking what advice would you give? How do you plan to help other space entrepreneurs? What would you say to the space community out here?
Jeff Bezos: I think the best way for us at Blue Origin to help other space entrepreneurs is to solve that problem of getting payloads into orbit at incredibly low cost, because that would unlock the power of thousands of entrepreneurs. That’s what we are focused on. It’s why we are doing the suborbital tourism mission. It’s why our BE-3 engine is liquid hydrogen, because we know we need liquid hydrogen for our upper stage and in-space missions later. It’s why we are using liquid natural gas [for the BE-4 engine], because our goal is to make spaceflight so cheap that the cost of the fuel actually matters.
Right now, the cost of the propellant is minimal compared to throwing the hardware away. But once we can get to a place where we are not throwing the hardware away, and we have real reusability, then we want to be using a fuel that is very low-cost. And nothing is lower-cost than liquid natural gas.
Alan Boyle: Thank you Jeff.
Jeff Bezos: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.