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John Travolta and Jeff Bezos
John Travolta and Jeff Bezos share the stage at the Living Legends of Aviation awards ceremony. (LLOA Photo)

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person and the founder of Amazon as well as the Blue Origin space venture, defended his billion-dollar-a-year expense on space travel here on Friday night in front of a receptive, star-studded crowd.

The occasion was the 16th annual Living Legends of Aviation awards ceremony, held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel with John Travolta as host and Harrison Ford as one of the celebrity presenters. The event, produced as a fundraiser for the Kiddie Hawk Air Academy, honors those who have made significant contributions to aviation.

Bezos got a triple dose of recognition, thanks to his induction into the Living Legends lineup plus his acceptance of the Kenn Ricci Lifetime Aviation Entrepreneur Award and a newly created honor called the Jeff Bezos Freedom’s Wings Award.

After receiving the Freedom’s Wings trophy from Airbus CEO Tom Enders, Bezos sat down for one of his traditional fireside chats. At one point, Bezos was asked why he should spend money on space exploration rather than on earthly issues that need fixing.

The question addressed the controversy that Bezos faced last year after telling an interviewer that Blue Origin, which he’s supporting to the tune of a billion dollars a year, ranked as “the most important work that I’m doing.”

Since then, Bezos created a $2 billion Day One Fund to focus on helping homeless families and improving preschool education. At the Beverly Hills ceremony, the billionaire gave a nuanced summary of his spending philosophy.

“If you take the big picture, you should spend money here on Earth,” he said. “There are a lot of important objectives here on Earth we need to do here and now. The real question is, it shouldn’t be framed as an either-or choice. You also have to spend some money on things that are 10 years out, 20 years out, 50 years out, 100 years out.”

Bezos said he wants “a whole diversified portfolio of trying to do the right thing.”

Blue Origin plays a big part in that long-range portfolio. The company is working on a suborbital spaceship called New Shepard, an orbital-class rocket called New Glenn, a new breed of rocket engine called the BE-4, and a lunar lander concept called Blue Moon.

New Shepard and suborbital spaceflights, including passenger flights, represent the first step because “the frequency of those missions can be very high,” providing lots of practice for more challenging missions, Bezos said.

The next uncrewed New Shepard test flight is scheduled soon, and Bezos said the program was on track to start flying people later this year. He referred indirectly to the fact that over the years, Blue Origin’s development schedule has slid to the right.

“I’ve rarely been confident we’ll fly ‘this year,’ ” Bezos joked. “I’ve often been confident we’ll fly ‘next year.’ I keep telling the team this is not a race. We’re going to do this right, and safely.”

Blue Origin is due to start launching its orbital New Glenn rocket in the 2021 time frame — and could send its Blue Moon lander to the lunar surface starting around 2023, assuming that the project wins NASA’s support.

Bezos said “the moon is critical to the future that we envision at Blue Origin,” because it’s the closest off-Earth prospect for settlement. He talked up the possibilities of building settlements sustained by deposits of water ice in the moon’s deep craters, and suggested that it could be a steppingstone to Mars as well as artificial homes and factories in space known as O’Neill habitats.

“It’s time to go back to the moon, and this time to stay. … When we do that, we will find it a very useful place to build all kinds of things we will use to explore the solar system,” he said.

Bezos echoed past comments he’s made about the need to put energy-intensive heavy industry in space so that Earth could be zoned for light industrial and residential use.

“If you want to protect the Earth, save the Earth, we have to go to space,” he said. “This isn’t an option. It might appear to be an option, but that’s just because we haven’t gotten there yet. If you wait until it’s obvious to everyone, it will be too late.”

Bezos argued against the idea, often advanced by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, that Mars should be the first focus of off-Earth settlement.

“I have long been an opponent of the idea of going first to Mars,” he said. “I am a proponent of settling the moon first. Going first to Mars would be skipping steps. And by the way, Mars is not enough. [Settling Mars] would at most double Earth’s population. We really need to figure out how to build O’Neill-style space colonies.”

Referring to the Freedom’s Wings Award, Bezos repeated his view that keeping humanity confined to Earth would eventually lead to limits to growth and “stasis” for the species.

“If somebody is telling you how many children you can have, and how much energy you can use, that doesn’t sound like freedom to me,” Bezos said. “What sounds like freedom to me is moving out into the solar system, where we have, for all practical purposes, unlimited energy, unlimited resources. We’d have a trillion humans in the solar system, and then we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. That’s the world I want my grandchildren’s grandchildren to live in.”

Coming back down to Earth, here are some of the event’s Hollywood angles:

  • Celebrity websites made much of the fact that this was Bezos’ first high-profile appearance since he and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, announced that they were ending their 25-year marriage. There were no references to Bezos’ private life at the ceremony, of course, and no spottings of Lauren Sanchez — a former TV host and helicopter pilot with whom Bezos has been romantically linked.
  • During his opening remarks at the ceremony, a smooth-pated Travolta joked that he had lots in common with Bezos. In addition to loving aviation and the cloud, “we both made the decision to shave our heads,” Travolta said. After the event, Travolta was mobbed by autograph-seekers outside the Beverly Hilton’s back door. Bezos, in contrast, made a clean getaway.
  • Among the evening’s other honorees was Kenny G, the Seattle-born saxophonist and avid aviator who got his pilot’s license 30 years ago. One of the biggest laugh lines came when he riffed on his long-term relationships. “I actually have had the same de Havilland Beaver for 25 years,” he said. “I’ve had the same saxophone since high school. … It really means, with the sax, if you blow something for 40 years you’re going to stay together.”
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