The cosmic vision of Jeff Bezos
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 25, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
Jeff Bezos is not a man of little dreams. The world’s richest person, with an estimated net worth of more than $130 billion, is spending some of his wealth on his space startup, Blue Origin. Much of the attention that the company has received has focused on the billions he’s invested into the company, its plans to fly tourists on its suborbital New Shepard vehicle and its entry into the orbital launch market with its New Glenn rocket.
But those vehicles are just the start of a much grander vision about the future of humanity. Speaking to an audience primarily of aviation industry executives at a Wings Club luncheon in New York Feb. 20, Bezos made the case those vehicles are the first step toward a future where humanity expands beyond Earth to harness the energy and other resources of the solar system. That very long term future includes up to a trillion — yes, a trillion — people living in places like the space colonies proposed in the 1970s by Gerard K. O’Neill. The alternative, according to Bezos? A life of “stasis” on the Earth, rationing the limited resources available on our home world.
Bezos acknowledges he doesn’t know all the steps that it takes to achieve that vision, but he does know the first one: developing low-cost and routine access to space with reusable launch vehicles. That capability, he argues, can create the infrastructure to enable “dynamic entrepreneurialism” in space, in much the same way Bezos, nearly a quarter-century ago, was able to build upon the terrestrial infrastructure of finance, transportation and the internet to create Amazon, the company whose success is fueling his space vision.
Bezos outlined that vision in an onstage interview at the Wings Club event with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust. That interview, in condensed form here, started with comparisons between spaceflight today and the early aviation industry.
The aviation industry is a mature industry, but it’s grown that way over the course of more than a century. Commercial spaceflight is still a long way from that goal.
We’re still in the barnstorming phase.
Where do you see some of the parallels between the growth of aviation and the growth of commercial space, and what role will Blue Origin play in that?
I really do think we’re at the barnstorming phase. It’s an interesting analog to early aviation because in a lot of industries, new technologies are first used for entertainment. It’s happened over and over again across industries and, of course, barnstorming was one of the first commercial things that small aircraft could do a long time ago.
One of the things that I’m very excited about with New Shepard, which is our suborbital tourism vehicle, is using that to get a lot of practice. One of the equilibria that we’re at today with space launch is that we don’t get to practice enough. The most flown vehicles may fly a couple dozen times a year launching payloads into orbit. Anything you do just a couple dozen times a year, you never get really good at it.
So, we need to be going into space very frequently, in a very routine way. One of the reasons that aviation is so safe today is that we do have so much practice. If your payloads cost hundreds of millions of dollars, they actually cost more than the launch. It puts a lot of pressure on the launch vehicle not to change, to be very stable. Reliability becomes much more important than the cost. It’s hard to get off of that equilibrium. It actually drives you in the wrong directions, where you have fewer launches of very expensive satellites. And that’s what you see happening in many cases.
What we want to do at Blue Origin is to try to get on that practice curve, and to do that we have to have an operable, reusable vehicle. And the key point there is really operability. The space shuttle was reusable in only the most pedantic of senses. In reality, they would bring the space shuttle back, inspect it in very elaborate ways and then re-fly it. It was literally better to have an expendable vehicle.
You asked what’s Blue Origin’s role in this. We want to drive down the cost using reusability. And the vision is to figure out how there can really be dynamic entrepreneurialism in space. I’ve witnessed this incredible thing happen on the internet over the last two decades. I started Amazon in my garage 24 years ago and drove all the packages to the post office myself. Today we have 600,000-plus people, millions and millions of customers, a very large company. How did that happen in such a short period of time? It happened because we didn’t have to do any of the heavy lifting. All the heavy-lifting infrastructure was already in place for Amazon. There was already a telecommunications network, which became the backbone of the internet. There was already a payments system, called the credit card. There was already a transportation network, called the U.S. Postal Service and Royal Mail and Deutsche Post, all over the world, to deliver our packages. We didn’t have to build any of that heavy infrastructure.
An even more stark example is Facebook. Here is a guy, Mark Zuckerberg, who started a company in his dorm room, which is now worth half a trillion dollars, less than two decades ago.
So how do you get that kind of entrepreneurial dynamism in space? You need to lower the price of admission. Right now, to do anything interesting in space, the entry price point is hundreds of millions of dollars. Nobody’s going to do that in their dorm room. You can’t have the Mark Zuckerberg of space today. It’s impossible. Two kids in their dorm room can’t start anything important in space today. That’s why I want to take the assets I have from Amazon and translate that into the heavy-lifting infrastructure that will allow the next generation to have dynamic entrepreneurialism in space, to build that transportation network. That’s what’s going on. That’s what Blue Origin’s mission is. If we can do that, the whole thing will take off, and there will be thousands of companies doing creative things in space.
By the way, about getting into orbit, it turns out there’s not many creative ways to do that. Once you get into space, you can really unleash a lot of creativity, but the launch itself? I have been through all of the creative ways and, believe me, chemical rockets are the best. You just can’t throw them away after every flight. New Glenn lifts off with almost 3.9 million pounds of thrust and uses liquid natural gas and liquid oxygen as its propellants. The propellants to fuel New Glenn cost less than a million dollars. It is not the cost of the fuel. It’s taking all of that high-grade aerospace hardware and throwing it away.
And you have to design for operability up front, so that’s one of the other reasons that we did New Shepard first. We’re taking all of the lessons that we have from New Shepard and incorporating them into New Glenn. And the reason we chose vertical landing as our recovery architecture is that vertical landing scales really well. In fact, the bigger the vehicle gets, the easier it is to land because it’s the inverted pendulum problem. New Shepard is the hardest vehicle to land that we’ll ever have to land.
The goal is to start flying people on New Shepard this year?
This year. This is the first time I’ve ever been saying “this year.” For a few years I’ve been saying “next year.”
How is the test program going?
It’s going really well. We have tested our escape system very successfully. We’ve tested high altitude escape, pad escape, maximum aerodynamic pressure escape. We’ve tested all of the envelope there for escape. It’s one of the most complicated things that we’ve done. And the booster is performing very well. We now have two boosters there in Texas for the first time. The reusability of it is working very well. So, we’re in very good shape. I do keep reminding the team — I’m relentless on this — that it’s not a race. I want to fly humans this year, but we’ll fly when we’re ready.
What’s the importance of New Shepard to your future plans?
The strategic objective of New Shepard is to practice, and a lot of the subcomponents of New Shepard actually get directly reused on the second stage of New Glenn. New Glenn is powered by two vacuum variants of the BE-3 liquid hydrogen engine, which is the same engine that we fly, with a truncated nozzle, on the New Shepard propulsion module. All of those systems will get a tremendous amount of practice with that suborbital mission and will be carried over directly to the upper stage. And then the lessons learned on things like landing, operability and reusability, all of those things from the New Shepard program, those also get incorporated into the New Glenn booster.
What do you think about New Shepard in terms of the competitive landscape? There’s Virgin Galactic and their SpaceShipTwo. Do you think about how you will compare in the marketplace?
Yes, I do. One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address eventually is that they are not flying above the Karman line, not yet. The vehicle isn’t quite capable. So, for most of the world, the edge of space is defined as 100 kilometers, but in the U.S. it’s different. [U.S. government agencies award astronaut wings at an altitude of 50 miles.] But I think one of the things they will have to figure out is how to get above the Karman line. We fly to 106 kilometers. We’ve always had as our mission that we always wanted to fly above the Karman line because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not. And so that’s something they’re going to have to address in my opinion, before they’ll be better.
So, if you’re flying on New Shepard you’ll definitely be above that 100-kilometer mark?
You mentioned that New Shepard is the steppingstone to your orbital ambitions. You’re working on the New Glenn orbital launch vehicle and the building block of that is the BE-4 engine. How is the BE-4 coming along?
That’s going really well. We’ve tested that engine, and it now has 1,800 seconds of test time on it. It’s been up to 400,000 pounds of thrust. The full thrust of the engine is 550,000 pounds of thrust. It’s liquefied natural gas fuel, liquid oxygen as oxidizer. It uses an oxygen-rich staged-combustion cycle. It’s a very advanced engine. We want it to be a 21st century American engine, the new version of the [Saturn 5’s] F-1.
Are you approaching the end of the testing campaign for the BE-4?
Well, there’s still going to be a lot of testing. Development has to be finished, qualification, then qualification testing will have to happen. But yes.
Besides developing the BE-4 for your own New Glenn, you’re selling it to United Launch Alliance. What’s that relationship like, being both a vendor to a company but also a competitor?
Pretty normal. In this industry, there’s a lot of cases of being a competitor in one way, but you’re often a customer and a vendor in another way. It’s not atypical in aerospace. Actually, it’s not that atypical in a lot of industries.
No qualms on either side?
No. After doing a very competitive process, they bid us very aggressively against Aerojet Rocketdyne as their other possibility for acquiring engines for the Vulcan vehicle. After that very aggressive process, they chose our engine. We’re very grateful for that, and we’re going to bust our butts to make a great engine for them.
And by working with them, do you get benefits like economies of scale?
Absolutely. With the amount of fixed expense that goes into developing something like the BE-4 engine, you want it to be used as much as possible. You want to amortize that fixed development cost across as many programs as you can.
And what’s the status of New Glenn, both the launch vehicle and the launch site?
All of those things are under construction. When it’s all said and done, we will have invested about a billion dollars into the manufacturing facility and the launch facility at Cape Canaveral. We also got a $500 million contract from the Air Force, the Launch Service Agreement award. That’s going to help us build launch facilities, for example, in Vandenberg.
What’s been the customer reaction to New Glenn? You’ve already signed up some customers.
Yes. Most recently, Telesat. We’re building a backlog for that vehicle right now. The industry is very hungry for additional launch providers.
However, by the time New Glenn comes to market in 2021, there will be a lot of competition from other vehicles. How is New Glenn going to stand out?
Well, a couple of ways. One very big way is the seven-meter-diameter payload fairing. It’s the largest payload fairing in the industry by far. That is, especially for certain missions, including LEO constellations, a big deal, because a lot of those missions end up being constrained more by volume than by mass. So, it’s a very large vehicle geometrically, and it’s also very large in terms of lifting payload: 45 metric tons to LEO, 13 metric tons to geosynchronous transfer orbit, which lets us take two heavy satellites on one mission.
And what about cost?
We’ll be very competitive on cost. That’s what we want to do. That’s the whole point of doing this. Another way that we are very different from anybody else out there in our approach to reusability is that we’re designing from the beginning for a very high mission life on that booster. That’s based on our experience with designing and operating the New Shepard vehicle.
You have a vision of eventually millions of people living and working in space. So, there has to be more steps beyond New Glenn. What’s next?
Yes, there are. I already talked a little bit about unleashing entrepreneurialism in space, and that is really critical. If you look even further beyond that, ask the big question: why we need to go to space? I think that is a very useful question to ponder.
My answer is a little different from the answer that I think you hear sometimes more commonly. One thing that I find very unmotivating is the kind of Plan B argument: when Earth gets destroyed, you want to be somewhere else. That doesn’t work for me. We have sent robotic probes now to every place in the solar system, and this is the best one. It’s not close. My friends who want to move to Mars, I say, do me a favor and go live on the top of Mount Everest for a year first, and see if you like it, because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars.
So, we go to space to protect this planet. This is why the company’s named Blue Origin: blue planet, it’s where we’re from. But we also don’t want to face a civilization of stasis, and that is the real issue if we just stay on this planet. That’s the long-term issue. This planet is, actually, finite. If we take current baseline energy usage, globally, and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells.
A life of stasis would be population control, combined with energy rationing. That is the stasis world that you live in if you stay. And even with improvements in efficiency, you’ll still have to ration energy. That, to me, doesn’t sound like a very exciting civilization for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to live in. And we don’t have to have that. The solar system can support a trillion humans. And then we’d have a thousand Mozarts, and a thousand Einsteins. Think how incredible and dynamic that civilization would be.
But if we’re going to have that, we do have to go out into the solar system. We have to capture more of the sun’s output, and we have to use all of the resources that are out in space. And that’s very doable, but we have to get started. The fact of the matter is we don’t have forever.
I don’t know all the future steps, but I know one of them: we need to build a low-cost, highly operable, reusable launch vehicle. No matter which path we take, it has to include that gate, and so that’s why that’s Blue Origin’s mission. And that’s a very expensive step, and that’s why Blue Origin is focused on that. It’s not something two kids in a dorm room are going to do. But I really want that dynamic life and civilization for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, so we’ve got to get started.