Jeff Bezos has announced his firm Blue Origin will invest roughly $200m (£128m) in a facility to send rockets into orbit ‘later this decade’, in an acceleration of the billionaires’ space race with Elon Musk’s Space X and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
If someone told you that the Amazon founder was building a multibillion-dollar facility to launch rockets into space, you’d be forgiven for asking which hollowed-out volcano it was being hidden in. Face it, with his immense resources, world (retail) conquest ambitions and megalomaniacal laugh, he’s just a white cat and shark-tank trapdoor away from the full super-villain set.
The manufacturing plant is in fact being built in a far more conventional location, Florida, with the launches to take place at historic Cape Canaveral. The new and as yet unnamed rocket will be a step up from Blue Origin’s New Shepard, the sub-orbital vehicle it (sort of) successfully tested in May, and is likely to intensify competition with Space X, which has been launching vehicles into orbit since 2012.
But… there’s nothing there
Getting to space is an expensive, risky business and when you get there it’s cold, dangerous and, well, empty. It might seem odd therefore that a highly successful businessperson would want to divert their time and money from their golden-egg laying goose (or in Amazon’s case, a goose that always promises to lay an even bigger golden egg tomorrow) into space travel.
There is some money to be made, of course. Space X already has 60 contracts worth a total of $7bn lined up by the end of 2018, mostly to put commercial satellites into orbit. Blue Origin, meanwhile, is looking to get in on the action with the BE-4, a new engine it's developing for the Pentagon’s favoured space carrier, United Launch Alliance (ULA).
That's not to mention the new delivery options it opens up for Amazon. Who needs drones, after all, when you can 'ship' goods directly from space? The books would arrive in the blink of an eye, though they might be a little charred round the edges...
In truth, Bezos has made clear that he’s not really motivated by immediate financial gains. ‘If my only goal were to make money, I would just open a new kind of snack food company. It’s way more likely to work... but I don’t want to do that,’ he said.
Though the Amazon founder insists Blue Origin is a viable business, he appears to be looking further ahead. ‘I'm also kind of well known for being long-term oriented, although I think Blue Origin is going to set a new standard for me in that regard.’
Even the long-term profitability of space travel isn’t immediately apparent. Yes, there’s tourism, but how far can that go? Musk wants settlers on Mars, while Bezos said in an interview as a graduating high school student in 1982 that he envisaged a future where millions of people live in space colonies. Maybe they’re onto something (though it’s unclear what advantages space has as a place to live over, say, Antarctica, which isn’t as cold or as far away, and which actually has air).
The fact is, this is more a personal ambition than a business one. Bezos grew up as an avid ‘Trekkie’ in suburban Miami, watching space flights from Cape Canaveral. He wants to hold a press conference in space, and he’s got the money to make that happen. It’s summed up in something he reportedly told one of his software engineers back in 1996:
‘I am really interested in space exploration, but the truth is it’s some number of years off. I see [Amazon] as a really interesting thing to do in the meantime.’
The long game indeed.