In February, shortly after SpaceX launched a rocket carrying a sports car to Mars, the company’s founder Elon Musk declared a new era in exploration. “We want a new space race,” Musk told reporters. “Races are exciting.” But Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose space exploration company Blue Origin keeps a decidedly lower profile (he has instructed his company to be the “tortoise, not the hare”), didn’t appear to be in a competitive mood. Instead he cheered Musk’s rocket launch on Twitter.
Still, even if Bezos didn’t take Musk’s space race bait at the time, these billionaires, both of whom owe their vast fortunes to earthbound businesses (Amazon and PayPal, respectively), are engaged in something of a competition. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin launched reusable rockets within a month of one another in 2015; both are interested in making spaceflight more affordable and accessible to private citizens (and corporations); and both have their eyes set on establishing the kinds of Moon colonies that got Newt Gingrich laughed out of the 2012 Republican primary.
Curiously, the media coverage of these efforts has largely been wide-eyed. For all of their extraterrestrial economic ambitions, SpaceX and Blue Origin are seen as passion projects, vestiges of a time when Americans dreamed big. They have become important branding exercises for two controversial billionaires. All of the hype has obscured the fact that these projects are businesses, and that this nascent “space race” is fundamentally about anticipating the untapped resources of outer space.
Bezos’s plans, in particular, are grounded in cold calculation. “Musk’s style is to brag about things and then do them,” George Washington University’s James Logsdon told The Guardian earlier this year. “Bezos’s style is to do things and then brag about them.” Specifically, Bezos is setting up Blue Origin to look a lot like Amazon—a middleman for companies doing business in outer space.
Since the existence of Blue Origin was made public in 2003, Bezos has cast the effort in deeply personal, even messianic terms. Bezos says his interest in space travel can be tracked to summers spent on his grandfather’s Texas ranch, where he watched the Apollo 11 mission unfold. He was so enamored with the great beyond that he ended his high school valedictorian speech in what might be the corniest way possible, declaring, “Space, the final frontier, meet me there!”
Bezos has been careful to cast Blue Origin as a mission-driven project, whose ultimate goal is saving humanity from oblivion. Recently calling Blue Origin “the most important work that I’m doing,” Bezos has laid out a utopian vision of the future. “The solar system can easily support a trillion humans. And if we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar power unlimited for all practical purposes,” he said in a talk recorded by Geekwire over the weekend. “I believe that in that timeframe we will move all heavy industry off of Earth, and Earth will be zoned residential and light industry.”
What Bezos seems to be getting at is that, with a population that is rapidly escalating and an unquenchable demand for energy, humanity is at risk of overpopulation and resource depletion. Blue Origin is looking toward a time when humanity has no choice but to look outside of Earth for the resources it needs to survive—and possibly room for all those people. His much-mocked statement about space travel being the only feasible way he could spend his “Amazon winnings”—comments that were made a week before his company entered into a bitter fight with Seattle’s City Council over a proposed $275-per-employee tax that would be used to fight homelessness—were made in this context.
Bezos was indicating that he was looking decades into the future, well beyond the concerns of the moment. In this long-lensed vision, Bezos is working on solving inequality and climate change a century from now.
But what Bezos has more specifically in mind—and is closer to home—was revealed in the talk with Geekwire. In that talk, Bezos had his eyes fixed on the Moon. He marveled at its prime location—“reachable in just a couple of days with the right rocket”—and its stores of ice, which could be used for water, oxygen, and fuel. While Musk and others have focused on building structures on the Moon that could support settlements, Bezos is focused on logistics and supplies.
In his vision, robotics would help construct and support habitats on the Moon. Blue Origin, meanwhile, has been working on lunar landers that would be “capable of [delivering] five tons of payload to the lunar surface,” which could facilitate the movement of people and goods between Earth and the Moon (and, eventually, beyond). Bezos believes that these modules will be operational in the next decade, with or without a partnership with NASA.
All of this, as Gizmodo’s Tom McKay pointed out earlier this week, would “set up the company nicely to be a sort of Space Amazon for said Moon Village.” While Blue Origin wouldn’t be leading space colonization projects per se—or doing heavy mining or explorations—it would be facilitating these projects led by either nation states or private businesses. Bezos is anticipating that businesses will increasingly turn their attention to space in the coming years and Blue Origin is positioning itself to take advantage of that.
And, while projects from Musk and Richard Branson are focused on smaller projects, like tourism, and grander projects, like colonization, Blue Origin is, in keeping with Bezos’s approach to most business matters, more practical. It will be ready to take advantage of financial opportunities that may just be around the corner.
In the meantime, Bezos is spending a fortune on Blue Origin, liquidating $1 billion in Amazon stock a year to support the project. So it’s no surprise that it’s treated as a weird rich guy’s passion project. (That Musk would send a sports car into space adds a certain midlife crisis dimension to this generation’s space race.) But it’s also an investment. Bezos has created a company that’s preparing to cash in on a massive business opportunity. Yes, he’s losing billions of dollars on it. But Amazon lost billions for years, too.