By Christian Davenport
They had just been to a matinee of “October Sky,” the film based on the starry-eyed memoir of Homer Hickam, the author and former NASA engineer. And now Jeff Bezos and his friend Neal Stephenson were sitting in a coffee shop, Hickam's dreams of one day building rockets to go to space still fresh in their minds.
Bezos said he had always wanted to start a space company, and Stephenson, the author, said, “Well, why don't you start it today?”
Soon, he did.
For years, Bezos has spent one day a week, usually Wednesdays, at Blue Origin, the space company he founded in 2000. Many in the space community hope that soon he will be spending more time at the company, injecting a sense of urgency into Blue Origin's activities at a time when NASA is pushing to return astronauts to the moon, space tourism is close to reality and the commercial space industry continues to grow.
Amazon may be what Bezos, who announced last week he would be stepping down as Amazon's CEO, is best known for, but space is a lifelong passion. And if Bezos' career is to have a second act it would likely be focused largely on Blue Origin's mission of building a transportation network that would bring down the cost of space travel, allowing for what he's called a “dynamic, entrepreneurial explosion in space.”
Amazon was like a winning lottery ticket that allowed him to invest $1 billion a year in Blue Origin, he has said. Despite his many other ventures, including ownership of The Washington Post, achieving Blue Origin's goal of “millions of people living and working in space” is “the most important work I'm doing,” he's said.
Space is no passing fad. At his high school graduation, he gave a speech about going to space to save the Earth, which he said should be preserved as a national park. Today, he gives a similar version of that speech but has tweaked that line to say Earth should be zoned residential while all heavy industry should be moved into space.
Bezos is a huge “Star Trek” fan, who had a cameo in the movie “Star Trek Beyond” and named a dog and a company after “Star Trek” characters. He was the president of the student space club at Princeton University, who devoured science fiction as a child and has been dedicated to making the far-fetched dreams of those novels reality – including building massive colonies in space.
At first, Blue Origin was just a handful of people, including Stephenson, working in an industrial Seattle warehouse to see if there was any way to get to space other than using chemically fueled rockets. After studying several alternatives – even a massive whip that would fling objects into space – they decided that rockets were the best option, as long as they could be reused.
“I've heard him say in the past that he has been accused of starting an internet company so that he could start a space company, and I think that summarizes his perception of things,” former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview. “His goal is to move humanity off the Earth – that's his fundamental objective. And to do that, he knows there's going to have to be transformational technology to drive down cost and increase access and those are things he's investing in.”
Still, Blue Origin has yet to send a spacecraft to orbit or fly humans. It recently lost out on a major Pentagon contract, and some have criticized the company for moving too slowly, especially when compared to Elon Musk's SpaceX. Within six years of its founding, SpaceX sent a rocket to orbit, and last year sent two crews of astronauts to the International Space Station. It is moving fast on its next-generation spacecraft, known as Starship, which Musk hopes will fly people to the moon and Mars.
“Engineers do better when they're pushed hardest to do great things in a very short period of time with very few resources. I think that's when you do great work. Not when you have 20 years,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer, said at a conference last year. “I don't think there's the motivation or the drive there.”
Blue Origin, by contrast, has been quiet and plodding like its mascot, the tortoise. The company's motto is Gradatim Ferociter or “step by step, ferociously.” And one of Bezos' favorite sayings is, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
Another one might be, as Bezos once said, “We'll talk about Blue Origin when we have something to talk about.”
Wary of the hyperbole that goes with high-profile space companies, Bezos once said. “Space is really easy to overhype. There are very few things in the world where the ration of attention you get to what you've actually done, can be extreme.”
Ever quiet and secretive, Blue Origin has grown tremendously in recent years. Its headquarters, now located in a Seattle suburb, has grown as has its manufacturing sites in Huntsville, Ala., as well as a massive campus just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“Every time I go down there, there's a new, massive structure,” Bridenstine said.
The company is getting close to flying its first humans to the edge of space and back on its suborbital vehicle New Shepard, named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, whose 15-minute trip to space also went straight up and down. And it hopes to fly its massive New Glenn rocket to orbit this year, though that may very well slip into next year. That vehicle is named for named for John Glenn, the first American to reach orbit.
It also is developing a spacecraft that would ferry astronauts to and from the surface of the moon – a project of particular interest for Bezos, who's called the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 a “seminal moment” for him when he watched it at age 5.
On Tuesday, Blue Origin announced it had built a full-scale mock-up of part of the lunar lander that would land on the moon, known as the descent element.The company is planning a test mission of its lunar lander spacecraft to the moon, without crews on board, ahead of a human landing there as part of NASA's Artemis program, which seeks to establish a permanent presence on and around the moon. To build the lander, Blue Origin has teamed up with aerospace giants Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, to form what it calls the “national team.”
“We can begin to build up Artemis base camp,” Steve Squyres, Blue Origin's chief scientist, said in a video released by the company. “We're not standing still at the national team.” The plan, he said, is to “enable long term sustainability, getting America back to the moon, this time to stay.
Getting to the moon is a dream of Bezos'. In 2013, he funded an expedition to recover the F-1 engines that powered the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Parts of the engines have gone on display at the Seattle Museum of Flight.
His goal now is to build a similarly massive rocket – but with boosters that can be reused, flying back to Earth to land on a ship at sea, the way SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 rockets. Building that infrastructure to space, he has said, would be his life's work.
“If I'm 80 years old and I'm looking back on my life,” he said during an event in 2016, “and I can say that I put in place, with the help of the teammates at Blue Origin, the heavy-lifting infrastructure that made access to space cheap and inexpensive so that the next generation could have the entrepreneurial explosion like I saw on the internet, I'll be a very happy 80-year old.”
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