LOS ANGELES – Deep thinkers have been saying for generations that we have to get off this rock and head for the stars, but the idea takes on a little more weight when the world’s richest person says it.
“We will have to leave this planet, and we’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better,” Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon retailing giant and the Blue Origin space venture, told me here on Friday night during a fireside chat at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference.
Bezos had just received the nonprofit society’s Gerard K. O’Neill Memorial Award for Space Settlement Advocacy, and our chat demonstrated why he was given the award.
The way Bezos sees it, the imperative for space settlement won’t come from a sudden terrestrial catastrophe, but from the realization that we have to expand beyond our home planet if we are to preserve it.
The strategy may be different from that taken by his fellow space-savvy billionaire, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, but the ultra-long-term goal isn’t all that dissimilar. Both men are looking ahead to a time when humanity is a multiplanetary species, and they’re both willing to spend their fortunes to make it so.
For Bezos, the first step is to send people to the edge of space on Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship, known as New Shepard (named in honor of NASA’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard). That could start happening by the end of this year.
Blue Origin is also gearing up to produce its orbital-class New Glenn rockets, named after John Glenn, the first American to go into orbit. The first New Glenn launch is currently set to happen in 2020.
And then what? That was the main focus of our talk in Los Angeles.
We are featuring the discussion in its entirety on this special episode of the GeekWire Podcast. Listen below or subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Overcast, or your favorite podcast app. Continue reading for a transcript, lightly edited for clarity.
Alan Boyle: Since it’s the O’Neill Award, I’d love to hear how Gerry O’Neill influenced you. You were at some of his seminars back at Princeton, and it sounds like you’re following his playbook…
Jeff Bezos: I am … But before I answer that question, I want to do one small thing. Does anybody here in this audience watch a TV show called “The Expanse”? [Loud cheers.]
Do you guys know that the cast of “The Expanse” is here in the room? Could you guys stand up please? [Louder cheers, clapping, whooping, extended applause.]
I was talking to the cast actually half an hour ago … right before dinner started, and I was telling them we were working hard at Amazon to save “The Expanse,” but it wasn’t a done deal yet. And during dinner, 10 minutes ago, I just got word that “The Expanse” is saved. [Very loud cheers, clapping, whooping.]
The Rocinante is safe. It will be a Prime Original in the coming seasons, so we’re looking forward to that. If you haven’t seen the show, the show is extraordinary, and these guys are unbelievably talented, so I’m glad you’re going to get to continue.
— Cas Anvar (@Casanvar) May 26, 2018
Boyle: Well, I think we got our headline here, so … mission accomplished.
Bezos: We could keep going. I’m just setting the bar.
Boyle: Since we’re on the subject of “The Expanse,” talk about the science fiction that has formed you. I know you’re a big fan of “The Expanse,” and Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, and Philip K. Dick.
Bezos: Absolutely. I grew up reading science fiction. I spent my summers in a small town in South Texas called Cotulla, 3,000 people, about halfway between San Antonio and Laredo, and it had a tiny little town library. In that library were about 300 science-fiction books that one guy in town had donated to the library. He basically donated his entire science-fiction collection to the library. Probably 10 percent of the library was science fiction, and over the course of many summers I just plowed my way through all of them. They were the classics, you know, Asimov and Heinlein, all of the people that you know.
Today I continue with my science-fiction reading habit and find it very mind-expanding. Always makes me think.
The Culture series is certainly, in terms of more modern science fiction, one of my absolute favorites. We’re not quite at that level technologically, we’ve a lot of work to do before we get there, but there’s a utopian element to it that I find very attractive.
Boyle: You’ve talked a lot about millions of people working in space, and that’s O’Neill’s vision as well. So how do we get there?
Bezos: Professor O’Neill was very formative for me. I read “The High Frontier” in high school. I read it multiple times, and I was already primed. As soon as I read it, it made sense to me. It seemed very clear that planetary surfaces were not the right place for an expanding civilization inside our solar system. For one, they’re just not that big. There’s another argument that I like to make, too, which is that they’re hard to get to.
When we build our own colonies, we can do them in near-Earth vicinity, because people are going to want to come back to Earth. Very few people, for a long time anyway, are going to want to abandon Earth altogether. Earth is going to be a very important place to be able to come back to. You’re going to want to come and go. And if you have very few launch opportunities, and you need a lot of delta-V to get to a planetary surface, that’s going to make it very difficult to come and go. That’s going to be more of a place where you go and stay.
There are a lot of other problems with planetary surfaces. But the main one is that they’re not big enough. We have the resources to build room for a trillion humans in this solar system, and when we have a trillion humans, we’ll have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts. It will be a way more interesting place to live.
The alternative, if we stay on this planet, is not necessarily extinction. We can defend this planet, but the alternative is stasis. We will have to stop growing, which I think is a very bad future. It’s not the future that I want for my grandchildren or my grandchildren’s grandchildren. I doubt anybody in this room wants that for their descendants.
We have ever-improving lives in large part because we use ever-expanding amounts of energy. You can take baseline energy use on Earth today and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years. Not very long. The power of compounding is very non-human, and it throws people. But in just a few hundred years, we will have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells if we want to continue to grow our energy usage. And keep in mind, this covers all the things that you like: hospitals, air travel, all these things, modern childbirth, where children don’t die.
We use a lot of energy to do these things. We’ve been getting more efficient at using energy with every passing decade, and still we use more. Our metabolic rate as an animal is 100 watts. That’s how much the human body needs. If you take about 2,000 calories of food intake a day and convert that to watts, that’s our metabolic power. But our civilizational metabolic rate as members of the developed world is 11,000 watts.
Do we want that to continue, or do we want to freeze that in time? If we freeze it, by the way, there are millions of people who don’t get to enjoy the 11,000 watts that the people in this room enjoy.
So, we will have to leave this planet, and we’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better. We’ll come and go, and people who want to stay will stay.
There will be some restrictions here. It’ll end up being zoned light industry and residential, and we’ll move all heavy, dirty industry off Earth – where, by the way, we’ll be able to do it much more effectively with 24/7 solar power.
The Earth is not a very good place to do heavy industry. It’s convenient for us right now, but in the not-too-distant future, I’m talking decades, maybe 100 years, it’ll start to be easier to do a lot of the things that we currently do on Earth in space, because we’ll have so much energy. And then we can send the vitamins down to Earth.
That’s going to be the Great Inversion. The beginning is, we’ll get bulk materials in space and we’ll have to send all the vitamins up, integrated circuits and things like that. We’ll have to send all of those up into space, but eventually that will invert, and we will send the vitamins down to Earth.
Boyle: So this sounds like a great future. It sounds like you’re painting a fantastic long-term vision.
Bezos: It is.
Boyle: But how do we get from here to there?
Bezos: You have to lower the cost of access to space to do these grand things that we’re talking about. By the way, this is not something that we can choose to do. This is something we must do. We need to do a better job of communicating how important this is, because this mission is so big. We need the world to support it, and the people in this room have a part in educating the world about why this is a “must-do” and not a “fun to do.”
We need to do this. So how do you do it? You do it step by step. Our motto at Blue Origin is “Gradatim Ferociter” – “Step by Step, Ferociously.” And by the way, for about a year, our motto was just “Gradatim.” I made that up because step-by-step is so important to me. And then I realized it’s not enough — it has to be step-by-step ferociously, and so that’s where the “Ferociter” came from. Because we don’t have a lot of time. We do have to hurry.
I spent three years, from the year 2000 to 2003, looking at all the different ways you might get off Earth with different, more exotic means of propulsion. I came to the conclusion after three years that chemical propulsion is the right way to get off Earth. It’s actually a very good way, and the only problem is, the rockets need to be reusable. We can dramatically lower the cost of access to space, which will then allow us to start this long process of moving all heavy industry.
It won’t be done by one company. It won’t be done by just Blue Origin. It won’t be done by just NASA. It won’t be done by any particular company. This is going to take thousands of companies, working in concert over many decades.
One of the great problems in business is that people have kind of a sports metaphor in their head. That there are two competitive companies, and there’s a winner and a loser. But business isn’t like sports. … In business, industries rise and fall. It is not a zero-sum game.
It is often that there are multiple winners, and that’s what we’ve seen on the internet. Thousands of companies have been successful on the internet, of all scales and sizes. Some very large, like Amazon, and some medium-size, and some small, but it’s a big group of companies. The reason all those companies can thrive on the internet is because the heavy lifting was already in place.
Facebook could be started by two kids in a dorm room, and now it’s a giant mega-corporation after just a little more than a decade. Two kids in a dorm room today cannot do that as space entrepreneurs. You cannot make a giant space company in your dorm room. Not today. And the reason is that the heavy lifting infrastructure isn’t in place.
When I started at Amazon, I didn’t have to build a payment system – it existed. It was the credit card. I didn’t have to build the transportation network. It existed. It was called Deutsche Post, Royal Mail, UPS, FedEx and so on. And likewise, I didn’t have to get a computer on every desk. That was already done. Microsoft had worked on that, and laid that heavy infrastructure along with IBM and Intel and Apple, and a bunch of others.
All those things would be multiple, tens of billions, in some cases hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of capital expenditure that no 20-year-old in their dorm room would get to deploy. That’s what it is right now to be a space entrepreneur. You get millions of dollars, not billions of dollars, but the things you want to do currently would cost billions of dollars.
We have to change that and make it more like the last 20 years of the internet, where you saw unbelievable dynamism. And then, when we have that entrepreneurial dynamism in space, you will see this vision that I painted, which is really the Gerry O’Neill vision that I was deeply influenced by. That vision will happen so fast once we have that dynamism.
This is the most important work I’m doing. It’s crucial. My role is to help build that heavy lifting infrastructure, because I have the financial assets to do that. That will set things up for this dynamic entrepreneurial explosion that will lead to this Gerry O’Neill world.
Boyle: You’ve said that you basically turn in a billion dollars’ worth of Amazon stock every year, and put that mostly toward Blue Origin.
Bezos: Yeah …
Boyle: Earlier this month, space entrepreneur Rick Tumlinson said that you and Elon Musk are making a charitable contribution to the future, and that’s what that billion dollars represents. Is this charity, or do you see it as a business?
Bezos: It’s both. The question really is, are you improving the world? And you can do that in many models. You can do that in government. You can do that in a nonprofit, and you can do it in commercial enterprise. Is the world better because Apple pioneered the smartphone? Yes, I think so. Is the world better because Boeing makes an all-carbon-fiber 787 that’s more fuel-efficient than anything we’ve ever seen? I think so. So if I am the guy in charge of the Boeing 787, I feel unbelievably good about my contribution to society. And that goes on and on and on.
So much wealth in the world is created by the fair exchange of value. That’s what commerce is: It’s the fair exchange of value. People invent new things, and pioneer new things, and the world gets better.
Some things can’t be done in that model. If you look at the Gates Foundation, they do such a good job of focusing only on things where there are market failures, where it’s just not going to work.
There is no market for room-temperature vaccines. The people who don’t have refrigerators cannot develop room-temperature vaccines. So, the market is never going to do that. Who’s going to pay for that? Most vaccines need to be refrigerated, and for us that’s fine. If you live in a developed country, you have refrigeration, it’s not a problem. So that’s a market failure, and where there are market failures, you need to use a nonprofit model or you need to use a government model.
The way to think about this is, start with the mission, work backward and figure out which is better for the mission. But no matter what your mission is, have some notion in your head. Forget the model, whether it’s government or nonprofit or profit. Ask yourself the more important question: Is my mission improving the world? Are you sure about it? Seek to disconfirm that all the time. And if you can, change your mission. Do something new.
Boyle: So it’s going to be 50 years since Buzz Aldrin and his friend Neil Armstrong made that landing on the moon. [Loud applause recognizing Aldrin, who was in the room.] You remember that. At that time, you were 5 years old.
Bezos: I was 5 years old. I watched Buzz and Neil step onto the surface of the moon. I remember it very clearly. I remember how excited my family was. Black and white TV.
Boyle: I was a little bit older, and I remember thinking: This is it. We’re going to be going to the moon, we’re going to be going to Mars, we’re going to be going on and on.
Is the space effort a market failure? Is that why you have do this?
Bezos: Well, yes, in a way. It was a government program. If you look at the Apollo program, there was no market there. It was a market failure, and the government stepped in and did it. There are other pieces of space, of course, that have found a fair exchange of value – communication satellites and so on. But the Apollo program certainly had no real commercial value. It was done for very different reasons, and I think very good reasons for the time. It’s an extraordinary achievement of mankind, but it wasn’t sustainable.
By the way, it was also pulled forward. We humans should not have been able to do it in 1969. It was impossible, and we did it. When something gets pulled forward, out of sequence, it’s unlikely to be sustainable.
But today, we must go back to the moon, and this time to stay.
— National Space Soc. (@nss) May 26, 2018
Boyle: This comes back to the question of how we get from here to there. How do we get to the moon? Is Blue Origin going to be merely a propulsion company, a delivery company? Are you going to build those habitats? What do you see as the role of Blue Origin in all this?
Bezos: We’re building the foundation first. We’ll do stepwise whatever we need to do to get that vision to happen. So one of two things will happen: Either other people will take over the vision, or I’ll run out of money. Those are the two possibilities.
Boyle: I think it will be a while before you run out of money.
Bezos: Let’s hope so.
That vision is so important. We’ll do it step by step. The first step is, you need to lower the cost of access to low Earth orbit. That’s the first piece. We know how to do that. It’s reusability. You have to reuse the vehicles. We have to figure out how to reuse the booster stage first and do that reliably. You have to fly it 100 times or more.
It has to be truly operable reusability. The space shuttle was reusable, but only in a technical sense. The reality is that the refurbishment and inspection regime the shuttle had to go through between flights drove the costs up very high. What you need is something much more like a commercial airliner, where you fly it and you fly it again, and you have certain intervals where you service it, and you have certain inspection regimes.
Eventually you want a commercial airliner. I’d be very satisfied right now with the kind of life cycle costs you get with, say, a jet fighter. That would be a dramatic improvement over space vehicles, and that’s where we need to head first.
Once we have that, then yes, we need to build other things. Blue Origin will participate in these things – you know, lunar landers and other things, bigger and bigger vehicles. We’re not ready to do it yet. We’re working on New Glenn, which is our orbital vehicle, but we have in our mind’s eye an even bigger vehicle called New Armstrong.
Boyle: I was going to ask about that, how you saw that progressing.
Bezos: Yeah, because you do need big rockets to do the kinds of things that we want to be able to do in space. Rockets, by the way, love to be big. A lot of things scale really, really well. Small rockets are very hard. The only thing that’s easy about small rockets is, they’re easier to manufacture. That’s a big plus in small rockets. But when you think about the scaling laws. … Vertical landing, for example, gets easier the bigger the vehicle, because you’re solving the inverted-pendulum problem. You have more moment of inertia on a big vehicle, so it’s actually easier to control it when it’s tall and heavy.
Boyle: We’re looking at a video of New Glenn. So tell us about New Glenn, what the progress is.
Bezos: We’ve been working on New Glenn for about five years. The second stage is expendable. The booster comes back in for re-entry. It has strakes, which gives it good “L over D” [lift-to-drag ratio] so it can fly back to the recovery ship. The ship is underway while the booster is being recovered, so it can use stabilizers to operate in heavy sea states.
Boyle: Have you bought the ship yet?
Bezos: Actually, yes, we have, and we’re retrofitting it now. It’s just about to start.
The booster is powered by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen. Liquefied natural gas has turned out to be a really good propellant choice. Our BE-4 engine has 550,000 pounds of thrust, and there are seven of them on the first stage.
We were going to have the second stage also be liquefied natural gas, but our BE-3U engine, which is the upper-stage variant of our liquid hydrogen engine, made such fast progress that we decided to flip that second stage to hydrogen. Then the two-stage vehicle gets vastly improved performance.
Boyle: And the BE-3 is also used on New Shepard.
Bezos: It’s used on our suborbital tourism vehicle, called New Shepard.
Boyle: I’m sure people will want to hear about that. Maybe the cast of “The Expanse” would like to take a ride.
Bezos: I think they would. We talked about whether we should just film on location. That might drive the budget up a bit. The woman who runs Amazon Studios, I’m already thinking she’s not going to think that’s a good idea. She’s way too smart for that.
— Bobak Ferdowsi (@tweetsoutloud) May 26, 2018
Boyle: How much will a trip cost?
Bezos: We don’t know the ticket price yet. We haven’t decided. By the way, so many people ask me, why do this suborbital mission? And the reason is practice. We’re going to be able to fly that vehicle so often, and that engine, the BE-3 engine, is the same engine that is going to be in our orbital vehicle. It will get so much exercise and practice, it’s going to be the most reliable liquid hydrogen engine in the world.
Boyle: I wanted to ask about the White House’s lunar initiative and what you thought about that.
Bezos: I am a big fan. I don’t like to skip steps, and I always thought that this idea of going to Mars without building a permanent base on the moon was … I believe it would end the same way Apollo did, where we would do it, there would be a ticker-tape parade, and then 50 years of nothing. And so I hate that idea. It’s out of sequence.
The special ops guys and the firefighters around the world have this great phrase. They say “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast,” and that is true. Everything I’ve accomplished in my life has been because of that attitude. We don’t skip steps, and we’ve got to go back to the moon.
We’re so lucky to have the moon. It’s so conveniently located. We now know things that we didn’t know before. We know that there are volatiles trapped in the dark craters of the moon that are perpetually shaded. We know that there’s water there. There’s ice there. There are probably other interesting things in those craters as well.
Audience member: Lava tubes!
Bezos: Somebody wants to go to a lava tube. Godspeed. I want you to do that.
And then we also know that on the rims of the craters at the poles of the moon, there are places where you have almost perpetual sunlight. Literally there are some peaks where you only have about 10 hours of darkness per year, and those perpetual peaks of light are conveniently located right next to the perpetual dark areas where all these interesting volatiles reside. So it’s almost like somebody set this up for us.
Boyle: You’re interested in a public private partnership with NASA to go forward with this?
Bezos: We’ve proposed something called Blue Moon. We would build a cargo lander that would take five metric tons of cargo to the lunar surface and precision-land it in a soft controlled way. And by the way, we’ll do that even if NASA doesn’t do it. We’ll do it eventually. But we could do it a lot faster if there were a partnership.
Boyle: And what about European Space Agency and their Moon Village concept?
Bezos: Yes, I love the Moon Village concept. It’s a better way, in my view. The integration that nations needed to cooperate on the International Space Station was very fine-grained. Everything had to work together. The Moon Village concept has a nice property in that it basically just says, look, everybody builds their own lunar outpost, but let’s do it close to each other. That way … you can go over to the European Union lunar outpost and say, “I’m out of eggs. What have you got?”
It’s sensible to be co-located because it would help with backup plans and emergencies. Obviously, I’m being silly with the eggs, but there would be real things, like, “Could I have some oxygen. What do you have in the way of oxygen you can share?”
Boyle: Are you actually talking with people about that?
Bezos: Lunar Village? Not really. But I think again, that’s OK, because it’s not quite yet in sequence. The first thing we need to do is build a really capable lunar landing vehicle and send rovers there to go into these dark craters – which is a completely doable mission – and actually be sure what’s there, and what quantities, and how hard it’s going to be to extract, and so on.
We need to know what the resources of the moon are. We have great evidence now, because of different kinds of radar and spectroscopic analysis that people have been able to do. But we really do need to go visit there, and we can do that with a robot craft without any problem.
Boyle: Would Blue Origin get into the rover business?
Bezos: Yes. We will do anything we need to do. I hope we don’t need to do any of it. I want other people to do it. But if need be, we’ll do it.
Boyle: Any last words that you have for the National Space Society?
Bezos: I got to meet with a bunch of teenagers and college students and younger kids briefly earlier today, and it was very inspiring for me. This is that generation of people who are going to take this heavy lifting infrastructure that we, this generation, are going to build, and they’re going to put it to great use. It’s totally inspiring, and the only thing I would ask everybody in this room to do is to keep educating people about how important this work is, not just that it’s a fun thing to do.
Of course it’s a great adventure. Of course humans like to explore, and we should. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s more than that. It’s essential for your children and your children’s children.
You might not need it, actually. You might be fine. You’re going to live out your life on this Earth, and it is going to sustain you, and you’re not going to have to do weird things. That won’t be true of your grandchildren, or their grandchildren. So we do have to focus on it.