Bezos’ company has been clear from its founding in 2000 in Kent, Wash., that it is about far more than bringing tourists to space for a few minutes of weightlessness. It’s about “building a road to space.”
“In order to preserve Earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that stress Earth into space,” according to the company’s vision statement.
The New Shepard flight came just a week after Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, traveled to the edge of space aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. The flights are propelling forward a new industry that hopes to take into outer space growing numbers of tourists, beginning primarily with wealthy individuals who can afford the tickets.
But Bezos, a billionaire who made his fortune building Amazon into a global online marketplace but has dreamed of space travel since he was a child, has said that he believes almost religiously that sustaining the human race will require building space colonies — beginning on the moon — where millions can live and work and develop new resources to meet growing demands on Earth.
He has described these as “very large structures, miles on end, and they hold a million people or more each.”
Bezos has attributed much of his vision to the influence of the work and writings of the late Gerard O’Neill, a physicist at Princeton University, whom Bezos met as a student.
O’Neill argued in the 1970s that “we can colonize space, and do so without robbing or harming anyone and without polluting anything” and laid out a vision for how “nearly all our industrial activity could be moved away from Earth’s fragile biosphere within less than a century from now.”
For Bezos, “this is about industrializing space, moving all the polluting industries into space,” said Howard Bloom, a member of the board of governors of the National Space Society, which awarded Bezos the Gerard O’Neill Memorial Award in 2018.
O’Neill’s vision is “where Bezos’ idea of turning the Earth into a petting zoo for plants and animals and humans — and taking all the industry off Earth — comes from,” added Bloom, founder of the Space Development Steering Committee, a coalition of space industry leaders and astronauts.
That ultimately means permanent settlements in space. “Bezos is keeping alive the idea of the O’Neill colonies that can be 20 miles in one direction and 1 mile around and that can have 500 square miles of territory with forests, parks, farms, and puppy dogs, plus cities,” Bloom continued.
There is significant debate, however, about whether what Bezos envisions is practical anytime soon. If at all.
“Bezos wants to get people off this planet so it’s kind of like a very visionary, altruistic perspective,” said Mir Sadat, who served as a defense and space policy director on the National Security Council. “Some people who don’t like his view say he is foolhardy or that could never happen,” he added. “Others say ‘the Earth has been around for a gazillion years and will be around for a gazillion years so why is this guy doing this?’”
But Sadat, who is editor of the scholarly Space Force Journal, thinks that quite a lot is possible in the not-too-distant future.
“If the economy and the scarcity of Earth minerals and the capability to maneuver safely in space move in the right direction, we will have habitation on the moon over the next 10 years,” he said.
In addition to the New Shepard, Blue Origin is building a series of other spacecraft and rocket engines to push Bezos’ vision forward.
For example, the New Glenn, a heavy-lift rocket, is being designed to travel much farther and carry people into Earth orbit and beyond. “New Glenn will build a road to space,” the company says.
It is also leading the design of a suite of vehicles to operate on the lunar surface and deliver cargo to the moon to support a more permanent human presence.
The flight of the New Shepard on Tuesday lasted just 10 minutes, including a brief period of weightlessness after the capsule passed the Kármán line, the internationally recognized boundary of space.
The crew of four included Bezos’ brother Mark, as well as Wally Funk, 82, one of the original Mercury 13 female astronauts trained by NASA who never got to travel to space before the program was canceled. She is now the oldest person to travel to space.
Finally, crew member Oliver Daemen, 18, of the Netherlands, was the youngest person to travel to space.
The flight was the first in what Blue Origin plans to be a series of human missions, including at least three more this year, as the New Shepard rocket and space capsule steadily take more civilians into space.
Advocates are hopeful that the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights will build public confidence in private space travel. Blue Origin was repeatedly urging viewers during the broadcast of the flight on the company’s website to buy tickets, which now are in the millions but are envisioned to be reduced to $100,000 as more customers line up.
In the near future, “we hope to be in the thousands” of passengers, Gary Lai, a senior director for program management at Blue Origin, said ahead of the flight Tuesday.
Those who have closely tracked Bezos’ space ambitions over the last two decades also see the Tuesday’s milestone as a big step toward his ultimate vision. He’s known to think long-term and commissioned the construction of a 10,000-year clock.
Bezos and other private space pioneers are “harnessing the mystique and exclusivity of space in order to eventually routinize it,” said Jamie Morin, executive director of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at The Aerospace Corporation, a government-funded think tank.
“They believe that the frequent launches that can come with a safe space tourism market for the wealthy will help to build a safe and reliable industry and infrastructure in support of a much grander human destiny,” he added. “And maybe a profitable business, too.”