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Jeff Bezos
Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and one of his Blue Origin rockets. (Blue Origin Photo)

While Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates spends billions of dollars a year on global health, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is putting $1 billion a year into his Blue Origin space venture — and some folks have a problem with that.

The issue is coming to the fore in the wake of Bezos’ comments last week that Blue Origin represents “the most important work that I’m doing,” and is funded with billions of dollars of his personal wealth.

Bezos sees his share of Amazon’s success as the equivalent of “lottery winnings” that currently translate to an estimated net worth of $130 billion, making him the world’s richest individual.

“The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel,” Bezos said last week during an Axel Springer award ceremony in Berlin. “That is basically it. Blue Origin is expensive enough to be able to use that fortune. I am liquidating about $1 billion a year of Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin. And I plan to continue to do that for a long time.”

That sentiment is in line with Bezos’ long-held passion to pioneer the space frontier by making it possible for millions of people to live and work in space, preserving Earth in the process. He’s gotten used to acknowledging that the main reason for starting up Amazon was to get the money to fund space development.

But as last week’s comments became widely distributed, they attracted pushback from folks who pointed out concerns closer to home:

Unfortunately, the glare from Bezos’ comments about Blue Origin eclipsed other comments that he made about his philanthropic causes.

Last year, he put out the call for suggestions on how to spend his money. A couple of months later, he promised there’d be “more to come” — and he touched on that in last week’s interview:

“I am going to end up doing a mixture of things. We started doing in Seattle, there is a homeless shelter called Mary’s Place, run by a woman named Marty. And that has really impacted my thinking on this issue, because what I’m seeing is — I’m in favor of all — long-term-oriented philanthropy is also very good idea. I’m not against that. I’m finding I am very motivated by the here and now.

“Seeing a lot of the homelessness that Mary’s Place works on is transient homelessness. When you go study homelessness, there are a bunch of causes of homelessness. Mental-incapacity issues are a very hard-to-cure problem. Serious drug addictions are very hard-to-cure problems. But there is another bucket of homelessness is this transient homelessness. Which is, you know, a woman with kids, the father runs away and he was the only person providing any income. They have no support system; they have no family.

“That’s transient homelessness. You can really help that person, and by the way, you only have to help them for six to nine months. You get them trained. You get them a job. They are perfectly productive members of society.”

Last year, Amazon announced plans to set up a permanent shelter for homeless families on its Seattle campus, run by Mary’s Place. Bezos has also encouraged donations to Mary’s Place through a gift-matching program. (For what it’s worth, this year’s one-day GiveBig Seattle philanthropic campaign takes place on May 9.)

Amazon and Bezos have long come under criticism for not living up to Gates’ standard in the philanthropy department, but there are signs that’s changing:

  • In January, Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, donated $33 million to fund scholarships for Dreamers.
  • Last year, the Bezos family contributed $35 million to Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
  • And in 2016, Amazon put in $10 million for a new computer science building at the University of Washington.

Jeff Bezos’ other causes include clean energy technology, children’s television and even a clock designed to run for 10,000 years. Then there’s The Washington Post, which Bezos bought in 2013 for $250 million.

But there’s no denying that his biggest passion is Blue Origin, which successfully conducted an uncrewed test launch last weekend and could start flying people on suborbital space trips by the end of the year. And that’s just one small step toward having millions of people working beyond Earth — which goes to show how expensive space ventures can be.

Bezos insists that his reasons for wanting to facilitate space travel aren’t aimed at leaving Earth behind. Rather, the point is to move heavy industrial activity and the associated requirements for heavy-duty energy generation into space, and preserve our home planet for “residential and light industrial use.”

“We want to go to space to save the Earth,” Bezos said at Seattle’s Museum of Flight in 2016, during an earlier awards ceremony. “I don’t like the ‘Plan B’ idea that we want to go to space so we have a backup planet. … We have sent probes to every planet in this solar system, and believe me, this is the best planet.”

Will $1 billion a year be enough? There’s an argument to be made that if Bezos is really serious about his long-term vision, he should be spending more, not less:

Update for 11:30 a.m. PT May 2: I’ve revised this report to make clear that this year’s $33 million scholarship contribution came from Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos rather than the Bezos Family Foundation.

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