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Jeff Bezos: 'I don't want a Plan B for Earth'

Jeff Bezos: 'I don't want a Plan B for Earth'


The Amazon founder wants to go space to save our planet

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Jeff Bezos can "assure you" that Earth is the best planet in the Solar System. It's a statement the Amazon founder repeated fervently during a sit down chat with Walt Mossberg at Recode's annual Code Conference on Tuesday. The discussion delved into what Bezos sees for the future of the space industry — which he argues is lacking "dynamism" — as well as how he differs from fellow space entrepreneur Elon Musk. Bezos said that he and Musk are alike in many ways, but that he isn't as singularly focused on colonizing Mars as Musk is. Instead, he said he wants to "save Earth" by setting up an infrastructure that will eventually allow all of Earth's heavy industry to move off planet.

"If you look at the dynamism in the space industry, it's very slow."

Among his many internet pursuits, Bezos is also the founder of Blue Origin, a private spaceflight company that hopes to take tourists into space. The company has been making waves for its sub-orbital rocket New Shepard, which can fly up to 62 miles above Earth and then land back down on solid ground. Blue Origin has already flown and landed the same New Shepard rocket three times, proving the vehicle's reusability, and the company plans to take paying customers up on the vehicle as soon as 2018. Beyond its space tourism ventures, Blue Origin is also working on building a new engine called the BE-4, and the company even has plans to create a new orbital rocket of its own.

Given Blue Origin's ambitions, Mossberg asked Bezos for his thoughts on the current state of the space industry — to which Bezos responded that he thinks space has been kind of a snooze lately. "If you look at the dynamism in the space industry, it's very slow," said Bezos. "Very little has happened. It's been in stasis for 50 years by and large. We do, globally, in a good year, about 40 launches. 4-0. Forty. That's down from the peak. The number of launches per year isn't even flat. It's down."

Bezos went on to explain that the reason for the space industry's slow growth is due to a lack of infrastructure. He notes that Amazon was able to succeed, for instance, because things like remote payment systems and shipping services were already in place to make the website work. So in a similar way, Bezos has a plan of creating the infrastructure that will allow the space industry to grow at a faster pace. "When it comes to space, I see it as my job," said Bezos. "I'm building infrastructure the hard way. I'm using my resources to put in place heavy lifting infrastructure so that the next generation of people can have a dynamic, entrepreneurial explosion into space."

It's a very... altruistic objective for Bezos. But he does seem to be overlooking that there already is an infrastructure in place for the space industry. Private companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Aerojet Rocketdyne have been building and designing space systems for decades. This "lack of dynamism" is probably because he's comparing the space industry to the internet. The infrastructure needed to make Amazon flourish is vastly different than the infrastructure needed for the space industry to flourish; a remote payment system is far less complex than a cryogenic rocket engine. And when you boil down the state of the space industry to simply the number of launches each year, things are going to seem less dynamic.

But of course, the space industry’s infrastructure could be a lot more robust, and Bezos wants to revitalize it by lowering the cost of launching to space through reusability. That's definitely something the industry needs, and Blue Origin has been working toward that goal with the New Shepard rocket. Right now, most rockets are destroyed or unrecovered once they've been launched; reusing an already made rocket would bring down the cost of manufacturing an entirely new rocket for each mission.

"I think you go to space to save Earth."

However, Blue Origin still has a way to go before it lowers launch costs substantially. Its New Shepard rocket only goes to sub-orbital space, meaning the spacecraft isn't able to get people or cargo into orbit around Earth. Blue Origin will need to demonstrate reusability with a future orbital vehicle if it really wants to help lower the cost of accessing space. It could be argued that SpaceX, which has already launched numerous cargo into orbit and has recovered four of its rockets post-launch, is further along in helping to create the infrastructure that Bezos envisions.

Blue Origin New Shepard

Mossberg didn't shy away from the SpaceX comparison, which is also reusing its rockets in a similar way to Blue Origin. Bezos said that he and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk are "very like-minded" but he isn't as concerned with colonizing Mars, which is Musk's main goal for SpaceX. "I don't want a Plan B for Earth. I want Plan B to make sure Plan A works," said Bezos. "I think you go to space to save Earth. We know about the Solar System now. We've sent robotic probes all over the Solar System. Let me assure you, this is the best planet."

"All of our heavy industry will be moved off planet, and Earth will be zoned residential and light industrial."

And how exactly does he plan to "save Earth?" By sending all of our heavy industry into orbit. "All of our heavy industry will be moved off planet, and Earth will be zoned residential and light industrial," he said. Bezos argued we could put large chip manufacturing plants into orbit, for instance, or solar panels that can collect sunlight 24/7. That would save up room for people here on Earth and reduce the amount of energy needed to keep large populations alive.

"We need to protect [Earth] and the way we will protect it is by going out into space," said Bezos. "You don't want to live in a retrograde world. You don't want to live on an Earth where we have to freeze population growth, reduce energy utilization. We all enjoy an extraordinary civilization, and it is powered by energy, and it's powered by population. It's why urban centers are so dynamic. We want the population to keep growing on this planet. We want to keep using more energy per capita."