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Amazon’s Jenny Freshwater engages Jeff Bezos in a fireside chat at the re:MARS conference in Las Vegas. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LAS VEGAS — For the first time in public, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos explained the rationale for his risky Project Kuiper satellite broadband venture, during a fireside chat that was interrupted when an animal rights activist jumped on stage.

Today’s half-hour discussion was one of the headliner events for Amazon’s inaugural re:MARS conference, held here in Las Vegas to throw a spotlight on the frontiers of Machine learning, Automation, Robotics and Space. It’s modeled after the invitation-only MARS meeting that Amazon has been organizing annually since 2016.

Bezos and his partner in the fireside chat — Jenny Freshwater, leader of forecasting and capacity planning at Amazon — broadened the focus of the conversation to touch on some of the Amazon CEO’s favorite topics, including his management philosophy and his advice for entrepreneurs.

When Freshwater asked Bezos to name a “big bet” that Amazon has taken recently, he focused on Project Kuiper, the plan to put more than 3,200 satellites in low Earth orbit for global broadband coverage. The project came to light in April, and seems likely to be based in Bellevue, Wash. Here’s how Bezos explained his bet:

“The goal here is broadband everywhere, but the very nature of [having] thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit is very different from geostationary satellites. … You have equal broadband all over the surface of Earth. Not exactly equal, it tends to be a lot more concentrated toward the poles, unfortunately.

“But you end up servicing the whole world. So it’s really good. By definition you end up accessing people who are ‘under-bandwidthed.’ Very rural areas, remote areas. And I think you can see going forward that internet, access to broadband is going to be very close to being a fundamental human need as we move forward.

“So Project Kuiper has that. It’s also a very good business for Amazon because it’s a very high-capex [capital expenditure] undertaking. It’s multiple billions of dollars of capex. … Amazon is a large enough company now that we need to do things that, if they work, can actually move the needle.”

That’s when the protester came up from the back of the stage. Although what she said couldn’t be distinctly heard from the audience, her remarks seemed to focus on chicken farms and a plea for Amazon to be more environmentally responsible for the sake of the animals.

The protester got within a few yards of where the world’s richest individual was sitting, but in less than 30 seconds, security team members grabbed her and pulled her offstage. Bezos then turned to Freshwater and quipped, “Do you have a response to that?”

“I wasn’t quite prepped for that,” Freshwater confessed.

Bezos went on to finish his thought. “We need to be doing things where, if they work, they have to be able to move the needle for us. We can’t do things that, if they work, they’ll be small,” he said.

Other companies besides Amazon have had similar thoughts: SpaceX, for example, has begun deploying satellites in low Earth orbit, or LEO, for its Starlink broadband constellation. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said last month that the revenue from Starlink could amount to $30 billion or more annually. OneWeb, Telesat and LeoSat Technologies also have plans for providing broadband via LEO satellites. That’s led some experts to wonder how many mega-constellations the world needs, and how many satellites the night sky can handle.

During today’s chat, Bezos didn’t address the specifics of the Project Kuiper plan — for example, whether Amazon itself might make use of the satellites for cloud services, video distribution or other business lines. Nor did he get into the nitty-gritty of development schedules, or whether Bezos’ privately held Blue Origin space venture might launch the satellites.

In response to a space-related question from Freshwater, Bezos recapped Blue Origin’s focus on access to space and lunar exploration.

“The reason we go to space, in my view, is to save the Earth,” he said. “If we are going to continue to grow this civilization … and we’re talking about something that our grandchildren will work on, and their grandchildren and so on … we need to move heavy industry off Earth. It’ll be better in space anyway. Access to power is going to be way easier in space. And Earth will be zoned for residential and light industry.”

Will Amazon eventually put fulfillment centers on the moon?

“That’s a very, um, good question,” Bezos said, hesitantly. “I haven’t really contemplated that. … We’ll start out delivering liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. It’s going to be a small selection, but a very important one.”

In addition to space topics, Bezos discussed his philosophy on builders vs. dreamers, what he thinks he’d be doing if he never founded Amazon, what technological advances might be on the horizon and how he deals with disagreement. Listen to the full fireside chat, including the interruption, in this audio clip:

Update for 6:30 p.m. PT June 6: A news release from Direct Action Everywhere identifies the protester as Priya Sawhney, who has been involved in past protests relating to conditions at poultry processing facilities. Here’s a video of the disruption, provided by a GeekWire reader:

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