LAUNCH SITE ONE, Texas—Jeff Bezos burst from his spacecraft with a smile on his face as wide as the brim of the cowboy hat atop his head.
The founder of Amazon fulfilled a lifelong dream of flying into space Tuesday morning aboard a rocket and capsule he personally funded. During a few minutes of weightlessness, Bezos and his brother Mark had floated around the New Shepard capsule alongside aviation pioneer Wally Funk and an 18-year-old customer, Oliver Daemen. They tossed Skittles candy into one another’s mouths and enjoyed the view.
“Best day ever,” said Bezos, 57, after landing safely beneath three parachutes. “My expectations were high, and they were dramatically exceeded.”
Not everyone was thrilled by the adventures of the richest person in the world. With his brief 10-minute flight, Bezos provoked sharply divided reactions. Some people even wished Bezos had launched and never come back.
These critics expressed frustration with Bezos for busting unions and not treating Amazon employees well. Environmentalists despaired that as the world burns from climate change and other calamities, Bezos responded by jetting into space. And with all of his wealth, Bezos offered an inviting target for those who loathe ultra-rich billionaires and want them to pay their fair share of taxes. Criticism of Bezos spanned the ideological divide, from Tucker Carlson on Fox News to liberal Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Meanwhile, within the space community, people mostly celebrated Bezos’ flight as the dawn of the private spaceflight era, which further opens the high frontier, with both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic starting regular spaceflight service.
Neither side is necessarily wrong. It is reasonable to both be uncomfortable with Bezos’ extreme wealth and what that means for society but also recognize that Blue Origin has advanced spaceflight.
The real question is whether Bezos will make good on his stated intent to use his immense wealth for the good of humanity. What the legion critics of Bezos and Blue Origin miss is that the company legitimately has the goal of ultimately saving planet Earth. While Tuesday’s flight was clearly self-serving for Bezos, Blue Origin has follow-on projects in the works to support moving heavy industry from the surface of our planet into space.
To set humanity on this environmentally sustainable path, Bezos has lavished funding on Blue Origin, investing about $10 billion in the spaceflight company so far, with more coming every year. However, what Bezos has not invested into Blue Origin is his personal time, nor the driven leadership that propelled Amazon to the top of the heap of retail.
So after he returned from his spaceflight on Tuesday, what I most wanted to know is whether Jeff Bezos is all-in on space. He has the vision. He has the money. But at the age of 57, does he have enough years or willingness to ensure Blue Origin’s success? Or will he leave Blue Origin to flounder and instead mostly retire to his half-billion-dollar yacht after a suborbital joyride?
The jury is very much out.
Bezos has a compelling vision for space, and it is entirely genuine. From way back before his Amazon days, Bezos has been a true believer in the power of using space to improve life on Earth. Our planet, he says, is a garden to be preserved.
“This is the only good planet in the Solar System,” he said on Tuesday, repeating a line he has often used. “We’ve sent robotic probes to all of them, and this is the only good one. We have to take care of it. And when you go to space and see how fragile Earth is, you’ll want to take care of it even more.”
To accomplish this, Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 to build a “road to space.” This simply means bringing down the cost of launching rockets by reusing them over and over again. By lowering the cost of reaching space, Bezos seeks to move heavy industry off Earth. Instead of strip-mining our planet, he says, we should glean those resources from lifeless asteroids.
Our insatiable energy needs, too, might be met by space-based solar power farms. And finally, expanding into space will allow humanity to grow as a species, eventually populating orbital settlements near Earth and then other worlds. This unlimited opportunity for expansion would save humans from entering a stasis and from fighting for increasingly scarce resources on Earth.
Bezos is theoretically right about all of this. Today, roughly half the world’s population lacks access to reliable electricity and reasonably high living conditions. The only long-term means to bring this half of the world’s population up to a standard of living enjoyed by the developed world, without destroying the Earth, is probably accessing the bounty of resources in space.
Building such a space economy and a spacefaring civilization will not happen overnight, though, and that’s why Bezos views Blue Origin as a multi-generational effort. “Big things start small, and this is how it starts,” Bezos said Tuesday.
The company has a plan. It started small with the New Shepard system and learned how to reuse rockets. It is currently developing the much larger New Glenn rocket, which will essentially use the New Shepard design as its second stage. There are plans for even bigger rockets down the line, all to move more mass to and from planet Earth much more cheaply.
Yet this plan has unfolded very slowly, and Bezos has not pushed forward with the same determination displayed by his leadership of Amazon. Blue Origin remains very far from self-sufficiency. Bezos still must pump more than $1 billion into Blue Origin annually to keep the lights on. Even for the world’s richest person, this kind of financial backing does not seem sustainable.
Making matters even worse for Bezos? He must compete with Elon Musk and SpaceX.
A rivalry that wasn’t
During the middle of the 2010s, after more than a decade of near silence, Blue Origin emerged from stealth mode with all appearances of becoming a formidable space company. It seemed probable that two titans of the tech industry, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, would now battle for supremacy in the space arena.
In late 2014, Blue Origin stunned the space industry by announcing that it had reached a deal to build rocket engines for United Launch Alliance, then the premiere launch company in the United States. United Launch Alliance selected Blue’s BE-4 engine for its new Vulcan rocket over an offering from Aerojet Rocketdyne, the blueblood propulsion company behind the majority of large rocket engines in US history.
About a year later, Blue Origin pulled off another feat by safely launching and landing the New Shepard rocket and capsule on its up-and-down suborbital mission. This marked the first time in history that anyone—country or company—had vertically launched a first-stage rocket into space and then landed it back on the ground.
The next month, in December 2015, SpaceX repeated this launch-and-landing feat with its orbital Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. From a technical standpoint, the Falcon 9 landing was much more significant, as it requires about 30 times more energy to boost a payload into orbit and complicated engineering to slow such a booster down and return it to the landing site. No matter: After the Falcon 9 flight, Jeff Bezos cheekily tweeted, “Welcome to the club” to Musk and SpaceX.
Musk was decidedly not amused, but this banter underscored the emerging rivalry—Bezos and Musk, billionaire versus billionaire, on a quest to build reusable rockets and remake the space industry. Back then, it all seemed so clear: The 21st-century space race would be run by Blue Origin and SpaceX, and it was going to be a hell of a thing to watch.
Only it hasn’t been. There has been no race. Since the end of 2015, Blue Origin has launched its suborbital New Shepard system just 15 more times, an average of fewer than three missions per year. Only this week did humans finally get on board for a launch. As for the BE-4 engine, after promising it would be ready for spaceflight in 2017, Blue Origin has yet to deliver a flight-ready version to United Launch Alliance more than four years later.
Already more than 3 years into development our BE-4 will be ready for flight in 2017! pic.twitter.com/UppZweI7So
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) June 5, 2015
SpaceX, by contrast, has ascended. Since December 2015, the company has successfully flown more than 100 orbital missions. It has developed and flown the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, and may soon debut its still more titanic Starship launch system. With the Starlink Internet constellation, SpaceX now operates more satellites than any nation or company in the world. And in 2020, thanks to SpaceX, NASA broke its dependency on Russia for human spaceflight. NASA astronauts now ride to space in style inside the sleek Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Blue Origin has also lost out when it comes to large government contracts worth billions of dollars, something Bezos craves as he seeks to find some return on his massive investment in Blue Origin. In 2020, the Department of Defense said it would only allow United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to bid on national security launch contracts in the mid-2020s. Blue Origin protested and lost. Then, in April, NASA chose SpaceX alone for a prestigious Human Landing System. This came after Bezos showily unveiled his company’s “Blue Moon” lander in 2019. Blue Origin protested this, too, and a decision is expected in early August. It would come as a surprise if Blue Origin succeeds.
In short, a once-promising space race has become something of a damp squib. In late 2019, while reporting for my book on the origins of SpaceX, Liftoff, I asked Musk why he thought Blue Origin had fallen behind. “Bezos is not great at engineering, to be frank,” Musk replied.