Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says he’s trying to do for outer-space ventures what delivery services and the internet did for him: provide the “heavy lifting infrastructure” that will make it possible for entrepreneurs to thrive.
And he’s willing to commit billions of dollars of his “Amazon winnings” to make it so.
Bezos has talked about the parallels between the internet and space commercialization several times before. In April, for example, the subject came up during our fireside chat at the Space Symposium in Colorado.
But at this week’s Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in San Francisco, Bezos made a strong linkage between the work being done at Amazon and the work being done at Blue Origin, the space venture he founded 16 years ago.
Over the past year, Blue Origin has flown the same New Shepard rocket ship on five uncrewed suborbital test flights to outer space and back. If the program proceeds as Bezos hopes, test astronauts will start climbing aboard next year, and paying passengers will be flying in 2018.
Blue Origin’s goal is to have “millions of people living and working in space,” which is as much Bezos’ mantra as “making humanity a multiplanet species” is for SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk.
During today’s session at the Vanity Fair event, moderator Walter Isaacson (who has called Amazon’s founder the “best CEO around today in the digital world”) asked Bezos why he’s involved in the space business. Here’s how Bezos answered:
Jeff Bezos: “First, it’s important, I think, and I can tell you why. What I want to achieve with Blue Origin is to build the heavy lifting infrastructure that allows for the kind of dynamic, entrepreneurial explosion of thousands of companies in space that I have witnessed over the last 21 years on the internet.
“When I think about the founding of Amazon.com, it only could work … to take you back to 1995. July 1995, we open our doors, and this is a 10-person company. I’m driving the packages to the post office myself, and we’re sitting on a bunch of heavy lifting infrastructure. Otherwise, a tiny company could never have started Amazon.com. It couldn’t do it.
“For example, there was already a gigantic logistics network called the U.S. Postal Service, and UPS, and FedEx. That would have been tens of billions, actually hundreds of billions of dollars of capital that you would have had to have laid out if you had to build a logistics network. We didn’t have to do that. It existed. That heavy lifting was already done.
“The internet itself was sitting on top of, at that time, the long-distance phone network. Again, tens of billions, hundreds of billions of dollars of capital were put in place for long-distance phone calls, but repurposed for the internet. Payment system: There was already a payment system, we didn’t have to do that. It was called the credit card, and it had been initially put in place for travelers. And so on, and so on. …
“What we were able to do is take all of that heavy lifting infrastructure and kind of reassemble it in a new way, and do something new and inventive with it. That’s one lens through which you can view the founding of Amazon.com.”
“In space today, that is impossible. On the internet today, two kids in their dorm room can reinvent an industry, because the heavy lifting infrastructure is in place for that. Two kids in their dorm room can’t do anything interesting in space. You could build a CubeSat … there’s not that much interesting about CubeSats. That may change, but right now, there are certain laws of physics, certain things you need size for. Things need to be big. We need to be able to put big things in space at low cost.
“So, if I’m 80 years old and I can say to myself that Blue Origin did the heavy lifting … I’m using my Amazon winnings to do a new piece of heavy lifting infrastructure, which is low-cost access to space. Vehicles have to be reusable, you can’t throw them away. Throw away space vehicles every time, you’re never going to lower the cost.
“We’re trying to lower the price of admission into space so that thousands of entrepreneurs can then do amazing, surprising things. Nobody in ’95 predicted Snapchat, you know? I can’t predict for you what brilliant, amazing entrepreneurs will do in space. But I know if I give them low-cost access to space, some brilliant 22-year-old is going to figure it out.”
Walter Isaacson: One of the things about what companies get sustainable, is those that provide platforms upon which others can build. Amazon does it, Apple does it …
Bezos: “If you empower others to do things – AWS is like that, Kindle Direct Publishing is like that, our third-party selling business is like that, Fulfillment by Amazon is like that. Every time you figure out some way of providing tools and services that empower other people to deploy their creativity, you’re really on to something.”
Bezos said he thought space commercialization was entering a “golden age,” along with two other fields that Amazon is getting into big-time: machine learning and television.
It sounds as if Blue Origin is in it for the long haul, or at least as long as Bezos’ $70 billion fortune lasts. However, that quote claiming that “there’s not much interesting about CubeSats” may come back to haunt Bezos. Tiny satellites are becoming increasingly capable – and although they can’t carry people, they’re likely to play a big part in future communication, observation and exploration.
Bezos might well smile as he reflects on that CubeSat quote and Blue Origin’s golden age in the year 2044 – when he’s 80 years old.
Here’s the full video of Bezos’, including what he had to say about Donald Trump and The Washington Post, plus Alexa, artificial intelligence and its potential application to health care: