WASHINGTON — As commercial spaceflight company Blue Origin prepares for another suborbital test fight, company founder Jeff Bezos said he thinks the next administration should assign NASA a mix of large-scale prizes and technology development programs.
Bezos, in an on-stage interview as part of the John H. Glenn Lecture in Space History at the National Air and Space Museum here, offered his views when asked what he would do if the next president called him and asked for space policy advice.
“I think big prizes would be an interesting thing to do,” he said. NASA has run a prize program, called Centennial Challenges, for a decade, offering prizes of up to several million dollars for aviation and space technology achievements.
Bezos, though, believes NASA should go after something bigger, such as a prize for a Mars sample return mission. “One thing that the government could do is just offer a very large prize to whoever first brings back some Mars samples,” he said. “It would be very interesting. That kind of horserace would create lots of attention. People would compete for it.”
Bezos didn’t offer an estimate of how large the prize should be for a Mars sample return competition. NASA is currently working on the first element of its own sample return effort, the Mars 2020 rover, to collect samples. That mission has an estimated cost of $1.5 billion. Later missions are proposed to launch the samples into Martian orbit and return them to Earth, but NASA has not disclosed a schedule or cost for them.
In conjunction with large prizes, Bezos suggested NASA also pursue ambitious technology development efforts. “I would also advise that NASA needs to go after gigantic, hard technology goals,” he said, that would be too difficult for private industry to do on its own. Examples he gave were in-space nuclear reactors and hypersonic passenger aviation.
“I think prizes and then really hard technology programs” are what NASA should pursue, he concluded.
Bezos didn’t weigh in on a particular destination for NASA human spaceflight efforts, but the other guest speaker at the lecture, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, did. “To me, the focus should be on Mars,” he said.
Collins said his views contrasted with those held by the late Neil Armstrong, who had advocated for a return the moon prior to going to Mars. “I disagree with that. I think we ought to just go,” he said. “I used to joke that NASA should be renamed NAMA — the National Aeronautics and Mars Administration — and I would still to some extent like to see that.”
Bezos didn’t object to someone, be it NASA or a private venture, sending humans to Mars, although he thought it would be more for the achievement of doing so rather than any science crewed missions there might do. “I don’t think you can justify sending men to Mars for science reasons. I think we have reached a state where robots can do that task, probably better than people can,” he said.
Instead, he said people should go because it’s “cool.” “I hope somebody goes to Mars because I want to watch it. I think it would be glorious,” he said.
Bezos’ near-term space focus is on Blue Origin, the company he founded to develop reusable launch vehicles that promise to reduce the cost of space access. Bezos announced on Twitter June 13 that the company would perform another test flight of its New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle on June 17, which, for the first time, will be webcast live on the company’s website.
Bezos said Blue Origin, which now has about 700 employees, is on track to begin commercial New Shepard flights, carrying people, in 2018. “We’ll fly our first test astronauts in late 2017, hopefully, if the test program continues to go well,” he said.
The company has not yet started to sell tickets for those flights. “We don’t know yet what exactly we’re going to charge,” he said, but suggested Blue Origin would charge a price similar to Virgin Galactic, which is offering seats on its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle for between $250,000 and $300,000 a person. “We’re going to be in the same range, to start with, and then keep working over time to make it cheaper.”
Bezos has previously indicated he has invested at least $500 million of his own money into Blue Origin. At the event, Bezos said Blue Origin remains in “investment mode” and will eventually be profitable, but “it’s going to take a long time.”
“It’s for-profit,” Bezos said of Blue Origin when asked if it was a for-profit or not-for-profit company, but stressed it is not yet profitable. “Well, it’s not yet. That’s an intention for the glorious future.”