IT’S A NUMBER so huge that the Amazon CEO can painlessly siphon off a billion dollars every year to fund his boyhood dream: his other company, Blue Origin. Bezos’ money, earned from Amazon, has paid for the building where he sits, the air-conditioning, and the 60-foot rocket lying on its side in a nearby hangar, waiting to be tugged to a launchpad and shot into the thermosphere. Also, the salaries of about 1,500 Blue Origin workers, including the 35 or so engineers in the room and another 10 or so on a video screen, dialed in from the company’s headquarters in Kent, Washington. As they run down the checklist for the next day’s launch of that rocket, the New Shepard, Bezos sits near the back, not checking his phone even once. He asks one question—do the helicopters that will track the rocket’s flight know that weather balloons will be in the area? (Yep. Check.)
Starting next year, Bezos plans to use New Shepard to send passengers on jaunts into space. Clad in cool Star Trek–style jumpsuits, customers will settle into a comfy capsule and shoot up over the atmosphere for a quick peek at their home planet through panoramic windows and a few moments of weightless ecstasy. Though Blue Origin hasn’t announced the fee, it’s been reported to be a couple hundred thousand dollars per head, and Bezos anticipates ramping up quickly to a few flights a week. But suborbital tourism is just the beginning of his vision for Blue Origin. The second part of his plan is already under construction in a giant factory in Cape Canaveral, Florida: an imposing rocket meant for orbit and beyond.
Bezos tends toward discretion when it comes to his businesses, but earlier this year he offered to usher me into Blue Origin’s sanctums, with one stipulation: I had to promise that, before I interviewed him about his long-term plans, I would watch a newly unearthed 1975 PBS program.
So one afternoon, I opened my laptop and clicked on the link Bezos had sent me. Suddenly I was thrust back into the predigital world, where viewers had more fingers than channels and remote shopping hadn’t advanced past the Sears catalog. In lo-res monochrome, a host in suit and tie interviews the writer Isaac Asimov and physicist Gerard O’Neill, wearing a cool, wide-lapelled blazer and white turtleneck. To the amusement of the host, O’Neill describes a future where some 90 percent of humans live in space stations in distant orbits of the blue planet. For most of us, Earth would be our homeland but not our home. We’d use it for R&R, visiting it as we would a national park. Then we’d return to the cosmos, where humanity would be thriving like never before. Asimov, agreeing entirely, called resistance to the concept “planetary chauvinism.”
That vision captivated a generation of space nerds, including Bezos, who believed it back then, as a brainy schoolkid. And he believes it now, with “increasing conviction” every passing year. Earth is destined to run out of resources, he explains patiently to anyone questioning his priorities. Humans need a plan B. While he readily concedes that building a space company qualifies as a cool adventure, the ultimate point, he always insists, is getting people to live in space. He often remarks with astonishment and disgust that there have never been more than 13 humans in space at one time. He’s out to change that, by creating the backbone needed for O’Neill’s millions, billions, maybe even a trillion people to reside off-planet.
He’s not the only tech magnate with his head in the stars. Though Bezos has touched many more lives than Elon Musk (lots more Prime deliveries than Teslas), Blue Origin has received far less attention than Musk’s private rocket company, SpaceX. (Twitter follower metric: SpaceX, 7 million; Blue Origin, 123,000.) That’s in part due to Musk’s personality but also to his rocket company’s longer list of feats. SpaceX has had 60 successful launches of its Falcon 9 rockets and employs 6,000 people. Blue Origin has proceeded more slowly and with less oomph. Other gazillionaires—Richard Branson and Paul Allen—are also funding startup space ventures. All four men talk of creating the basic infrastructure for easy access to space, kind of like the railroad or the internet.
Step one for Bezos, of course, is proving that his rocket won’t kill its passengers, and tomorrow’s flight, the company’s ninth, will test whether New Shepard can handle a suborbital emergency at the lip of space. As the flight readiness review wraps up, Bezos stands to speak. He doesn’t usually deliver prelaunch pep talks, but today he makes an exception.
“This flight,” he says, in a tone more college professor than football coach, “is getting us so close to getting humans in space. I just want to ask you guys, while you’re doing all this tomorrow, to take a moment and not forget to reflect on the meaning and the beauty of what you’re doing. We’re getting very close.”
So close—to achieving a feat that humans first pulled off in 1961. But doing so then took an all-out national effort, and the US government’s interest has dropped considerably in recent years. Bezos believes that safely delivering non-astronauts into space can move us closer to realizing dreams that have moldered for decades, like moon bases and orbiting habitats. All setting the stage for an epic migration that won’t begin until well after Bezos, and the rest of us, are long dead.
Bezos went to Princeton, where he attended seminars led by O’Neill and became president of the campus chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. At one meeting, Bezos was regaling attendees with visions of hollowing out asteroids and transforming them into space arks when a woman leapt to her feet. “How dare you rape the universe!” she said, and stormed out. “There was a pause, and Jeff didn’t make a public comment,” says Kevin Polk, another member of the club. “But after things broke up, Jeff said, ‘Did she really defend the inalienable rights of barren rocks?’ ”
After Princeton, Bezos put his energies toward finance, working at a hedge fund. He left it to move to Seattle and start Amazon. Not long after, he was seated at a dinner party with science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. Their conversation quickly left the bounds of Earth. “There’s sort of a matching game that goes on where you climb a ladder, figuring out the level of someone’s fanaticism about space by how many details they know,” Stephenson says. “He was incredibly high on that ladder.” The two began spending weekend afternoons shooting off model rockets.
In 1999, Stephenson and Bezos went to see the movie October Sky, about a boy obsessed with rocketry, and stopped for coffee afterward. Bezos said he’d been thinking for a long time about starting a space company. “Why not start it today?” Stephenson asked. The next year, Bezos incorporated a company called Blue Operations LLC. Stephenson secured space in a former envelope factory in a funky industrial area in south Seattle. Other early members of the team included Pablos Holman, a self-described computer hacker, and serial inventor Danny Hillis, who had crafted a proposal to build a giant mechanical clock that would run for 10,000 years. Bezos also recruited Amazon’s general counsel, Alan Caplan, a fellow space nerd. (“We both agreed we’d like to retire on Mars,” Caplan says.) These people were more thinkers than rocketeers, but at Blue Origin’s start the point was to brainstorm: Had any ideas been overlooked that could shake up space travel the way the internet had upended terrestrial commerce?
Another early participant was George Dyson, a science historian and son of physicist Freeman Dyson. At the 1999 PC Forum, an elite tech event run by Dyson’s sister, Esther, Bezos made a beeline for George, who had been writing about a little-known 1950s venture called Project Orion. Project Orion sought to propel space vehicles with atomic bomb explosions, and Bezos wanted to know all about it. As Dyson recalls, Bezos saw Orion as “his model for a small group of crazy people deciding to go into space without the restrictions of being an official government project.” (Bezos later reviewed Dyson’s book on Amazon—something he’s done only three times in the company’s history.) Some months later, Stephenson asked Dyson if he would consult for the company. Then he asked him to join Blue.
When Dyson signed on, he says, Blue Origin felt like Wernher von Braun’s Society for Space Travel. Like that amateur group of dazzling scientists, Blue resembled a club more than a company. Its members were obsessed with finding an alternative to chemical combustion, which is a woefully inefficient way to propel rockets on interplanetary journeys. “We went through a long list of not-quite-crazy but way-out-there projects at the beginning,” Dyson says.
Those were hashed out at Blue Origin’s monthly Saturday all-hands meetings. The sessions began at 9 and lasted all day. Bezos rarely missed one. “It was almost incomprehensible how technically engaged Jeff was in every part of the discussion,” Dyson says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’ll leave the hydrogen-flow control valve question to the hydrogen-flow control valve people.’ Whatever the question was, Jeff would have technical knowledge and be involved.”
But as the Blue Origin team experimented with eccentric ways to heave things upward, they began to realize there was a reason big tubes full of chemical fuel had persisted. Every new tack proved infeasible, because of cost, risk, or technical complexity. “You can work really hard and come up with what you think is a super original idea, and you always find out that some Russian guy tried it 15 years ago,” Stephenson says.
By 2003, Bezos had started hiring experienced aerospace engineers, including some who’d worked on a government-backed project called the DC-X. It was a prototype of a reusable rocket that would be able to land vertically. Bezos says he studied alternative means of propulsion “for three years with a small group of brilliant people and concluded with complete conviction that rockets are actually not just a good solution for getting off the surface of the earth, they’re a great solution. But they have to be reusable.”
The logic is obvious: No one wants to junk a vehicle after a single flight. But recovering rockets has proven tricky. After exploring different ways to land them—parachutes, air bags, retractable wings—Bezos settled on vertical landings, using legs. Now it’s a core principle, almost a commandment at Blue. “Rockets have legs,” Bezos says. “Rockets should land! This is how God meant rockets to be!”
Musk was coming to the same conclusion. Seeing the similarities between the two companies, one Blue Origin employee, Tomas Svitek, urged Bezos to collaborate with SpaceX. Bezos and Musk met for dinner in the fall of 2003, but nothing came of it. “He’s a good guy, we’re kindred spirits,” Bezos told Svitek afterward. “But we decided to do our own thing.” Bezos now describes the meeting as more of a social event, a convivial dinner with their spouses. It’s fair to call this the high point of their relationship.
As Blue Origin grew, Bezos began to see it as the infrastructure for future space entrepreneurs to build even more exciting things. “There is no way two kids in a dorm room can build a super interesting and important company in space,” he says, because it costs way too much to get started. “If I can unleash a thousand Zuckerbergs in the next generation, we will see things you can’t even imagine.”
And what does that infrastructure look like? “Reusability, reusability, reusability,” he says.
“Rockets have legs,” Bezos says. “Rockets should land! This is how God meant rockets to be!”
For Blue Origin, that meant first learning how to land an object vertically. It didn’t have a rocket, so in 2003 it started building a stand-in, an awkward 20-foot-tall platform powered by surplus Rolls Royce Viper jet engines from the ’60s. Named Charon, after the ferryman in Greek mythology who transits deceased souls to Hades, it resembled a mini offshore rig, with cables snaking around dense scaffolding and a jet engine on each corner. Its jointed legs were designed to bend upon touching down, like shock absorbers. Using a crane, the engineers repeatedly hoisted the platform and then dropped it, to see if its legs could withstand the fall.
On March 5, 2005, at Moses Lake, about 180 miles from Seattle, the whole company showed up, along with spouses and kids, to see Charon fly. With burgers simmering on a giant grill, they watched as it rose up like a quadcopter drone. It hovered at 316 feet and then, with its autonomous software controlling the thrusters, lowered itself back to the flight pad, to lusty cheers from the Blue crew. An ebullient Bezos, in a blue hard hat, popped the cork of a jeroboam of champagne and splashed it into everyone’s paper cup. “To the Charon team!” he shouted, accompanied by his trademark braying laugh.
“It was like a junior high school kid’s project,” Holman says. But it was the proof of concept for “everything that’s followed.”
In the years after the Charon moment, Blue Origin built and flew actual rockets, including a 2011 test flight that ended with a dramatic accidental explosion. When it began sending up the New Shepard, in April 2015, Blue successfully separated the capsule from its booster, which houses the propulsion system, and then reclaimed the capsule. Later that year, New Shepard landed a booster for the first time. (When SpaceX landed its first rocket, eight months later, Musk got peeved at Bezos’ “welcome to the club” tweet. Bezos insists it was sincere and not a jibe.)
By then, Blue Origin was looking more like a traditional aerospace company. It moved from the envelope factory to a modern facility in Kent, about 20 miles south of Seattle. Using custom rockets built in Kent, Blue Origin has conducted nine suborbital flights. Bezos likes to wander the floor of the factory—he spends Wednesdays there—asking himself, “What would surprise Wernher von Braun today?” One twist that would impress the late German rocket scientist, he suggests, might be Blue Origin’s fancy new hydrostatic bearings. Spaceflight has a way of placing enormous strain on traditional bearings, the mechanical components that reduce friction between two moving parts. The ones Blue Origin developed rotate on a thin film of high-pressure fluid. Other points of pride are a new alloy, which Blue has named cascadium, and a coating it’s calling rainerium.
By most people’s metrics, however, Blue Origin lags behind SpaceX, which has placed dozens of satellites into orbit and carried cargo to the International Space Station. Bezos counters that Blue Origin’s pace is not a bug but a defining feature. The company’s mascot is a tortoise (leaving unspoken who the hare is). Its motto, translated into Latin, is Gradatim ferociter—“Step by step, ferociously.”
Tomorrow’s flight will test whether the crew capsule can execute a high-altitude escape: If something goes wrong as the rocket leaves the atmosphere, can the capsule speed itself away from an about-to-explode booster? It’s a bare necessity for space travelers, who will expect, at a minimum, to survive their excursions.
Bezos says that Blue will carry humans into space in the first half of 2019. Then it will launch its suborbital tourism business, perhaps before the year is out. Since the flight itself will be automated and designed for comfort, Bezos guesses that his customers will need only a day of training. They will be astronauts in the way that people who sign up with the Universal Life Church to perform marriages are clerics. Bezos anticipates that they’d sign a waiver—an FAA requirement—that would read like a form you’d sign for a scuba diving excursion. The six black seats, resembling souped-up barber chairs, are arranged in a circle, each with a view through giant windows. (No middle seats!) Computer displays will show footage of the takeoff, the booster and capsule separating, and other events. When the capsule crosses into space, the passengers will get about four minutes to unbuckle and float around inside. After that suborbital idyll, a recorded voice will instruct them to return to their seats.
When Bezos tells me the bit about the automated voice, I’m taken aback. No flight attendants? I imagine a lot of panicky fumbling as a bunch of first-timers try to strap back in for a rapid 300,000-foot-plus descent.
“There’s no flight attendant,” he confirms. “There doesn’t need to be. The vehicle is automated. It’ll probably be even easier to get into your seat in zero g—there are lots of handholds.” Bezos could be missing the need for a psychological handhold, the comforting presence of a human expert as you tumble around. I later predict to some Blue engineers that the first flights will indeed have human guides; they say they wouldn’t bet against it.
The whole trip will last about 11 minutes, making it seem like a very expensive Disney ride. It almost makes you wonder why, when Blue’s long-term goals are so high-minded, it is pursuing a project so seemingly frivolous. Bezos’ response is that tourism is a source of revenue, but also something bigger—the best way to make space travel seem routine. If people you know (or at least have heard of) are popping into suborbital space, it will start to feel more normal and less risky. Commercial air travel also followed this path, with early passengers engaging in fervent prayer on the runway. Meanwhile, Blue will use the trips to perfect its rockets. “We wanted a mission that would fly a lot,” Bezos says. “Launching commercial satellites, you’re lucky if you do it a couple dozen times a year.” (Bezos himself hasn’t yet committed to a flight. “I’m going for sure,” he says. “I don’t have a time frame.”)
After viewing the New Shepard in its hangar, we head to the launchpad, about 2 miles away on a road hacked out of the brush. A few fuel tanks, a low tower, and some cameras flank the concrete pad. Bezos isn’t done showing me around, though. We leave the Blue Origin base and travel to the top of the 6,000-foot mountain that contains his 10,000-year clock. The gigantic timepiece sits in a deep shaft, encircled by a steep spiral staircase. Descending into the cavelike quiet and viewing the exquisite metal gears in that quasi-monastic setting is almost a holy experience. As per Hillis’ design, the clock will emit a tick each year, each decade, each century, and each millennium.
Bezos is famous for taking a long view (Amazon became notorious for postponing profits), so it’s not surprising that he decided to fund the clock project, which will open for visitors in the next few years. “The clock is designed to be a symbol to encourage long-term thinking,” he says. “If people pay attention to the clock, they’ll do more things like Blue Origin.” As we exit through an underground passage to the mountain summit, we take in the stunning vista of his land, with the launch facilities of his rocket company discernible in the distance.
So Bezos’ domain spans both space and time. But to his critics, these lofty pursuits seem disregardful of all-too-pressing earthly concerns. They say the richest man in the world should be more invested in tackling climate change or extreme poverty or the diseases ravaging human lives—or just about anything else. There’s also a camp, with US senator Bernie Sanders as unofficial spokesperson, that thinks Bezos’ charity should begin in the workplace, not the cosmos. In a scathing fund-raising letter, Sanders said that for Bezos to bankroll a space company is “absolutely absurd.” When I ask him to clarify, the senator says, “I find it absurd that he has billions of dollars to spend on his space ventures but apparently does not have enough money to pay his workers at Amazon a livable wage right here on planet Earth.”
Bezos acknowledges that there are pressing needs. He says he’s a great admirer of Bill and Melinda Gates and how they have used their fortune to help humankind. He’s talked to them about the Giving Pledge, which commits its wealthy signatories to put more than half their riches to philanthropic causes, and says he is considering signing on. A few weeks after our conversation, he made his biggest contribution to earthly wellbeing by announcing the Bezos Day One Fund, which will devote $2 billion to helping homeless families and creating a network of Montessori-esque preschools. In early October, Amazon announced that it would begin paying all employees at least $15 an hour.
Bezos sees tourism as something bigger—the best way to make space travel seem routine.
But the way he sees it, he’ll make his biggest impact with his businesses. “I have the great luxury of my resources,” he says. “I’m not going to work on anything that I don’t think is improving civilization. I think The Washington Post does that, I think Amazon does that, and I think Blue Origin does that. In the long run, Blue is the most important.” Bezos often speaks of how easy it is to be misunderstood when working with extremely long time horizons. People will appreciate his crusade, he says, when the ravages of climate change, depleted resources, and unbreathable air make it time to discard what Asimov called, on that TV show Bezos enjoyed so much, “planetary chauvinism.”
Bezos’ infatuation with space habitats has been remarkably consistent since his high school days, even as O’Neill’s fan base has dwindled. In a book about the Princeton physicist, one writer described O’Neill’s vision as a “failed future.” Even some space habitat enthusiasts question whether now is the time to act on it. Sara Walker, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University, balks at the ecological engineering it will require. Since O’Neill’s time, we’ve become more aware of the mind-boggling complexity of life on Earth and our ignorance of how to re-create it in a giant floating can. “Is there a critical amount of biodiversity needed?” she says. “We don’t know.” Others posit ethical concerns, as in “Who the hell are we to impose our will on the universe?” That goes double when the “we” is rich white guys. (That Princeton woman incensed about the rape of the universe was ahead of her time.)
Bezos buys none of this. He sees humanity’s move to space as the only option. He sees it with the certainty of mathematics. So we might as well get started, long before we exceed the energy resources available to us and face catastrophe. “I’m just building the infrastructure so it’ll be there when people realize they need it,” he says. How will we know it’s time to blast off—will it be in one generation, or 10? “It will become incredibly obvious,” he says.
The solution, as Bezos sees it, is to get off the planet to better exploit solar power, so that the sun’s abundant photons can support the fruitful existence of countless people. (We’d also grow real fruit in space.) “Wouldn’t your grandchildren’s grandchildren’s lives be so much more exciting if there were a trillion humans in the solar system who used more of that output to do amazing things?”
“If you don’t agree with that,” he says, “forget the whole thing. AH-HAH-HAH-HAH.”
Bezos hopes that launch deals, government contracts, and, to a lesser degree, the fees from tourists will eventually make Blue profitable, though the time required may be best measured by the clock he’s building. “Right now, the business model with Blue Origin is I sell Amazon stock,” Bezos says. “I’m willing to be patient for decades.”
Meanwhile, the company is deep into the design of a lunar lander called Blue Moon, which is meant to haul 10,000 pounds of stuff (roughly equivalent to two Ford 150 pickup trucks), perhaps by 2023. “The moon is an essential place to get resources to build these kind of O’Neill-style colonies,” he says.
Those colonies again. I ask Bezos if he’d really want to live in one of those things.
“Yeah,” he says. “They’re not what you imagine. I mean, they’ll have farms and rivers and universities; they could have a million people in them. They’re cities. But I’d want to be able to come back and forth to Earth too.”
A group of us pile into vehicles and drive to the headquarters. Bezos has gone ahead, leading a convoy to unite with the capsule and booster, which have landed only a quarter-mile apart. The nearest road ends a few hundred feet from the capsule, and we make our way on foot through the brush, with an eye out for rattlesnakes, to the cluster of Blue-sters already surrounding it. A crane is preparing to lift it by the nose for the ride back to the barn.
As the capsule comes off the ground, someone spots a remarkable thing: a living creature underneath the capsule. A horned lizard, frozen in confusion, has its mouth agape as if to say, “What the fuck?!” The reptile had been minding its own business, thinking whatever thoughts a sunbather might have on a hot July day, when an object from outer space landed on it. Bezos’ laugh booms from here to the Diablos.