When It Comes to Space Exploration, Is the Sky the Limit for Jeff Bezos?

On second thought, for Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, the sky is just the beginning.

This article appears in print in the April 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

The way Jeff Bezos, who’s been fascinated by space since childhood, sells $1 billion worth of his Amazon shares each year to finance Blue Origin, you might think the private rocket company is just an expensive hobby.

But talking to Ariane Cornell on an overlook above Blue Origin’s squeaky-clean factory floor, I get a different impression. Yes, the “vintage” model of the rocket from Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon towering above the lobby behind us confirms Bezos’ long obsession with space travel. But the expansive factory before us, where engineers are working on the next generation of rockets and rocket engines, suggests something consequential, even historic, is taking place in this former Boeing facility in Kent.

Blue Origin’s mission, the 30-something Cornell tells me, is to help millions of people live and work in space and to move heavy industry out there to avoid polluting Earth.

The vision seems quixotic. But then, if someone had told me when I first met Jeff Bezos at Amazon’s small SoDo headquarters in 1996 that this slim, mild-mannered man with the explosive laugh would one day rule a company with 540,000 employees and nearly $200 billion in sales, I would have found that notion far-fetched as well.

Now, hearing Cornell talk about the “B2B” satellite industry and the “B2C” tourism opportunity makes the space effort so real, it gives me goose bumps. It says that Bezos is already harnessing the smarts and passions of a new generation of youth to commercialize space.

Blue Origin was the first to send a rocket to the edge of space and then land it safely on Earth vertically, so it could be reused. Cornell, the head of astronaut strategy and sales for Blue Origin, says the New Shepard can be launched and flown for less than one-fiftieth the cost of any rocket launch now commercially available.

If all goes well, New Shepard’s six-seat space capsule will carry Blue Origin employees into space by the end of this year and, in a year or two, consumers will be able to buy a ticket to space.

But Blue Origin’s first real contribution to the commercialization of space won’t be shuttling tourists into space. It will be the development of the BE-4 rocket engine fueled by cheaper and cleaner liquid natural gas and designed to be reused 100 times. The engine passed its first successful test last fall and by 2020 will power Blue Origin’s new, much larger New Glenn rocket as well as a new generation of Vulcan rockets from the United Launch Alliance (ULA), America’s top space launch provider. ULA currently uses Russian rocket engines.

If you have any doubts about Bezos’ ambitions, consider this: In addition to Blue Origin’s Kent operation, which has 1,400 employees, the company has moved into a 750,000-square-foot factory and launch complex near Cape Canaveral, Florida, where it will be the only company able to manufacture rockets and then roll them to a launch pad a few miles away. Blue Origin also plans to manufacture rocket engines in Alabama.

Bezos says competition from the likes of Elon Musk’s Space X will only help to accelerate the commercialization of space. Let the countdown begin!

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