In front of a military audience, Bezos touts investments in rockets, launch facilities

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Bezos: "If you build a space vehicle that you have to inspect in an intense way and disassemble and refurbish between flights, that's going to be more expensive than an expendable vehicle."

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said he plans to invest a billion dollars next year in his rocket company Blue Origin to further the development of New Glenn, a  heavy lift launch vehicle that is anticipated to fly in late 2020.

Bezos took the stage at the Air Force Association’s annual symposium in a fireside chat with AFA CEO Larry Spencer, and did not take questions from the audience.

One of Bezos’ messages to a room packed with Air Force officers, Pentagon officials and contractors is that he will continue to put financial firepower behind New Glenn and space launch facilities.

Bezos noted that he has already invested a billion dollars in launchpads and a manufacturing facility in Florida’s space coast.

“As far as I know we’re one of the only launch companies actually building and manufacturing on the space coast,” Bezos said. He said he purposely wanted to talk about his investments in space to make it clear that he’s in the launch business for the long haul. “I want want people in this audience to know how committed we are to this,” he said. “We’re in.”

New Glenn, designed from the get-go with a reusable first stage, is expected to compete in the national security launch market in the coming years. The Air Force is said to be reviewing a proposal from Blue Origin to have the rocket certified to fly military payloads.

Bezos showed animation videos of New Glenn, including one where the booster lands on a drone ship. “We stress availability in this vehicle,” he said.

Like SpaceX, Blue Origin markets reusability as a key advantage. “If you build a space vehicle that you have to inspect in an intense way and disassemble and refurbish between flights, that’s going to be more expensive than an expendable vehicle,” Bezos said. “It has to be real, operation reusability.”

Bezos suggested that reusable space vehicles that are low cost and reliable would ensure the United States retains its “space dominance.” The United States, said Bezos, “has enjoyed space dominance for so long, and it’s changing. Potential adversaries  are getting very sophisticated.”

Echoing a line often used by military officials, Bezos said, “You never want a fair fight. Outside the boxing ring, a fair fight is just bad strategy, it means you didn’t prepare properly.”

At a time of increasing global competition, “You have to be able to go to space more frequently, with less lead time,” he said. “It’s not surprising that it’s difficult. One of Blue Origin’s missions is to make access to space more frequent, on a moment’s notice, make it low cost, with reusability. All those things are going to be required, in my view, to move into a new era of U.S space  dominance.” He offered a word of caution to the U.S. military: “You do want to see that era end. That’s a big deal.”

He also advised the Air Force to use “commercial solutions” rather than continue to pour money into in-house developments. The Air Force could save money and improve its space capabilities by buying commercial products, he said. “When the requirements get written they are not written necessarily taking that into account,” he said. “You get a custom built system that meets the requirements, whereas a commercial system gives you maybe not the same requirements but better capability than is actually required.”

The traditional procurement approach “is a big problem,” he said. “It’s very costly, it slows you down. You want to reserve your custom requirements for things where you really need special sauce and where there isn’t a commercial option.”

The majority of Bezos’ talk at AFA, however, was not about space. He spent the bulk of his 40 minutes on stage offering life and business advice. Some of his suggestions included: Leaders should make sure their employees don’t burn out and manage their stress. If you swing for the fences you will get more runs but also more strikeouts. Being over-scheduled stresses you out. Work-life balance is important. Work should be fun. If you’re working 120 hours a week you’re doing something wrong.