Jeff Bezos has amassed more than $100 billion through Amazon, and bought The Washington Post to support journalism. But during a recent interview, Bezos said his most important work isn't at either company. Instead, he's channeling his obsession with humanity's long-term future into Blue Origin.
Jeff Bezos, the richest human on Earth, says Amazon and other lucrative ventures will never be as important to him as Blue Origin, his secretive aerospace startup in the Texas desert.
Bezos made the comments during a wide-ranging interview with Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Axel Springer (Business Insider's parent company) on April 24 in Berlin.
His remarks came just days before Blue Origin successfully launched and landed its reusable New Shepard rocket for the eighth time.
No people rode in the New Shepard capsule in the test, but a dummy called "Mannequin Skywalker" was inside, recording data about the flight from a cushy, leather-lined seat.
Beyond opening doors for space tourism, Bezos is spending billions to design, build, and launch a massive, mostly reusable orbital rocket called New Glenn. The behemoth is designed to compete with SpaceX and its launch systems starting around 2020.
"This is super important to me, and I believe on the longest timeframe — and really here I'm thinking of a timeframe of a couple of hundred years, so over many decades — I believe and I get increasing conviction with every passing year, that Blue Origin, the space company, is the most important work I'm doing," Bezos told Döpfner.
Blue Origin is the rocket company that Bezos always dreamed about creating.
That dream was seeded on his grandparents' large ranch in South Texas. Bezos spent his childhood summers there learning to work with, repair, and appreciate machinery, and also frequently visited the county library, where he pored over science fiction novels about space travel.
These and other formative experiences fueled his passion for spaceflight, eventually leading Bezos to secretly found Blue Origin in 2000, after he'd become a billionaire through Amazon. The goal: help make travel to space cheap, routine, and frequent.
Blue Origin's headquarters are in Seattle, but Bezos needed a remote place to test and launch rockets.
So after some perilous searching, he spent some of his newfound riches on a 30,000-acre ranch outside of Van Horn, Texas in 2004.
Bezos eventually purchased more than 330,000 acres in the region — more than half the landmass of Rhode Island — according to the book "The Space Barons" by Christian Davenport.
Blue Origin has been very secretive for most of its existence. Only recently, after earning millions of dollars in contracts for NASA, has Bezos opened up about what the company is doing.
Blue Origin has two designs in the works, according to a September 2016 announcement. The earliest version is a 270-foot tall, two-stage rocket. A more powerful 313-foot-tall, three-stage rocket will come later.
Bezos says the first New Glenn rocket should debut in 2020, and Blue Origin has built a 750,000-square-foot hangar in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to power that work. (Blue Origin has thus far declined Business Insider's requests to see inside the facility.)
It's not yet clear how much a New Glenn launch will cost, though the booster will take off and re-land like SpaceX's, allowing it to get reused for future launches. That would save Blue Origin tens of millions of dollars in the process, perhaps eventually reducing rocket-launch costs more than 10-fold.
But Bezos has even bigger plans with New Armstrong, a launch system he's eluded to but has yet to describe in any detail.
"Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step. It won't be the last of course," Bezos said in a statement emailed to Business Insider in September 2016. "Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong. But that's a story for the future."
New Glenn would compete with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, and New Armstrong might be large enough to compete with Big Falcon Rocket system, a fully reusable SpaceX system that's designed to send 100 people and 150 tons of cargo to Mars at a time.
As of March 2017, Blue Origin had at least one customer signed up to launch a payload on New Glenn. It expects to launch the rockets from Cape Canaveral.
You can read the full transcript of Bezos's conversation with Axel Springer here, but here's what else Bezos said about his long-term vision for Blue Origin (his comments begin around the 37-minute mark):
Döpfner: So you'd say retail, e-commerce, publishing — that's all less relevant than the space project?
Bezos: Yes, and I'll tell you why. First of all, of course, I'm interested in space, because I'm passionate about it and I've been studying it and thinking about it since I was a 5-year-old boy. But that is not why I'm pursuing this work. I'm pursuing this work because I believe if we don't, we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis, which I find very demoralizing. I don't want my great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren to live in a civilization of stasis.
We all enjoy a dynamic civilization of growth and change. Let's think about what powers that. We are not really energy-constrained. Let me give you just a couple of numbers. If you take your body, your metabolic rate as a human — as just an animal, you eat food, that's your metabolism — you burn about a 100 watts. Your power, your body, is the same as a 100-watt lightbulb. We're incredibly efficient. Your brain is about 60 Watts of that. Amazing.
But if you extrapolate in developed countries, where we use a lot of energy, on average in developed countries, our civilizational metabolic rate is 11,000 Watts. So, in a natural state, where we're animals, we're only using a 100 Watts. In our actual developed-world state, we're using 11,000 Watts, and it's growing. For a century or more, it's been compounding at a few percent a year — our energy usage as a civilization.
Now if you take baseline energy usage, globally across the whole world, and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. That's the real energy crisis. And it's happening soon. And by soon, I mean within just a few 100 years. So we don't actually have that much time.
So what can you do?
Well, you can have a life of stasis, where you cap how much energy we get to use. You have to work only on efficiency. By the way, we've always been working on energy efficiency, and still we grow our energy usage. It's not like we have been squandering energy. We have been getting better at using it with every passing decade, and still we grow it. So, stasis would be very bad I think.
Now take the alternative scenario, where you move out into the Solar System. 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 and so on. That's the world that I want my great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren to live in.
And by the way, I believe that — in that timeframe — we will move all heavy industry off of Earth, and Earth will be zoned residential and light industry. It will basically be a very beautiful planet. We have sent robotic probes to every planet in this solar system now and believe me this is the best one.
Döpfner: But Jeff, when can I buy the first ticket to do a little space tour?
Bezos: The first tourism vehicle — we won't be selling tickets yet — we may put humans in it at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year. We're getting very close, we've been working on it for years. And we are building a very large orbital vehicle, we've been working on that for more than 5 years. It'll fly for the first time in 2020, and the key is reusability.
This civilization I'm talking about of getting comfortable living and working in space and having millions of people and then billions of people and then finally a trillion people in space? You can't do that with space vehicles that you use once and then throw away. It's a ridiculous, costly way to get into space.
This story has been updated. It was originally published at 4:17 p.m. EDT on April 30, 2018.