Secrets, Sci-Fi & Uncertainty: Jeff Bezos and the Future of Private Spaceflight
The billionaire CEO of Amazon.com is also the founder of the private spaceflight company Blue Origin, which is slowly stepping into the public spotlight.
Credit: Blue Origin

In September, billionaire Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos announced that Blue Origin, the private spaceflight company he founded, would build a facility at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, kicking off a new phase for the company as it pursues the construction of an orbital space vehicle.

Blue Origin has been known for being extremely secretive about its operations and future goals — a luxury partly afforded by having a private launch facility in a remote area of west Texas. The move to Florida's Space Coast, however, may force the company to step into the spotlight.

Following the announcement ceremony at Cape Canaveral last month, Bezos talked with the media about his childhood obsession with the space program and science fiction books, and how that passion has motivated his business pursuits and shaped his ultimate goal to eventually put "millions of people" into space. [Photos: Private Spaceships of the Secretive Blue Origin]

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos leads Blue Origin, a commercial aerospace firm that hopes to send people on suborbital and orbital space trips. <a href="http://www.space.com/30549-how-blue-origin-s-suborbital-rocket-ride-works-infographic.html">See how Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft works here</a>.
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos leads Blue Origin, a commercial aerospace firm that hopes to send people on suborbital and orbital space trips. See how Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft works here.
Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist

Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) is surrounded on all sides by miles of empty grassland and marshes. The pad has gone unused for the past decade, but on Sept. 14, this otherwise rural spot hosted a bustling event space. A few hundred visitors gathered inside a massive tent with a soaring ceiling, temporary flooring, a reception area, a seating area and a large stage.

Among the guests were a few dozen members of the media, some of whom operated television cameras, ready to watch Bezos announce that the company would make a home at LC-36.

"During its 43 years of service, 145 launches thundered into space from this site," Bezos said from the stage. "The site saw its last launch in 2005, and the pad has stood silent for more than 10 years — too long. We can't wait to fix that."

Blue Origin will build a facility at LC-36, where it will manufacture, test and launch the orbital launch vehicle that the company is building from scratch — unofficially nicknamed "Very Big Brother."

Until now, Blue Origin has been able to execute its test rocket launches in total secrecy. Last April, from its private facility in west Texas, the company performed a successful test launch of its suborbital vehicle, which is called New Shepard. Blue Origin plans to use New Shepard mainly for space tourism, taking private citizens on a ride up above Earth's atmosphere, where they can enjoy a brief period of weightlessness and an unhindered view of the cosmos. [How Blue Origin's Suborbital Rocket Ride Works (Infographic)]

But Blue Origin didn't inform the public or the media about the test launch until it was already complete. (A few weeks before the launch, the company's president, Rob Meyerson, had told reporters that a test launch would take place "later this year.") The company's entire run of test launches has been conducted in a similar style, going back to at least 2006 with an earlier-generation vehicle.

In 2011, Blue Origin reported that it had performed two successful test launches of New Shepard but lost the vehicle during a third launch. The vehicle reached an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,700 meters), traveling at more than 700 mph (1,100 km/h), but it experienced a "flight instability" that changed its angle of attack and prompted the safety team to stop the rocket's thrusting.

Vehicle losses like this are expected in the early stages of testing a rocket or space-bound vehicle, but they can also happen during normal operations, as has been vividly demonstrated over the last 12 months.

On June 28, an uncrewed Falcon 9 rocket built by the private spaceflight company SpaceX exploded minutes after liftoff, disappearing in a cloud of white smoke. The rocket was carrying SpaceX's uncrewed Dragon capsule, which was packed with supplies intended for the International Space Station (ISS). The failure was later attributed to a faulty strut, and the company has not announced when it will fly again.

And on Oct. 28, 2014, the private spaceflight company Orbital Sciences (now known as Orbital ATK) had to abort the launch of its robotic ISS resupply vehicle only seconds after liftoff. The company's Antares rocket crashed back down onto the launchpad, creating an explosion that looked like it came straight out of a big-budget action movie. Video of the event stayed at the top of the global news cycle for a week.

Even if Blue Origin doesn't invite the public or the media to watch its test launches in Florida, the liftoffs will be clearly visible to residents of the Space Coast. It is highly likely that, at some point, Blue Origin will have to deal with the same media blitz that surrounded SpaceX and Orbital when their rockets failed.

The press event at LC-36 might be a sign that Blue Origin is preparing for this inevitable step into the spotlight. The grand showcase concluded with Bezos dramatically unveiling an image of Very Big Brother. (Details about the partially reusable rocket won't be released until next year.) He finished the event with an even more dramatic statement: "One day — and I don't know how long this will take — but one day, I look forward to having a press conference with you guys in space. I look forward to it very much."

On the other hand, the announcement event in Florida may very well have been fueled not by Blue Origin but by the politicians and local community leaders who also spoke at the event. Bezos was one of eight speakers, including the state's governor, Rick Scott, and Sen. Bill Nelson. The talks were a volley of thanks and congratulations to the people who had made Florida an appealing location for businesses like Blue Origin. (The new facility will bring $200 million and 330 jobs to the area, according to Scott.)

Bezos' speech did not include basic information such as what, exactly, would be included in the new facility, or when construction would begin. That speech was posted to the company's website and served as its only official statement. However, Bezos did answer questions from reporters following the event. During that Q&A session, he said the new facility will include manufacturing for portions of Very Big Brother, a launchpad and an acceptance test facility for Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine. Construction will begin "very soon," and the company aims to launch from there "by the end of the decade." The New Shepard vehicle will continue to launch from west Texas.

Blue Origin has not only been secretive about its rocket launches but also has resisted discussing the details of its future plans. The company's promotional video features an inspiring speech by Bezos about the history of human exploration, set against shots of mountain climbers and cave explorers, but offers nothing concrete about what the company hopes to accomplish.

In Florida, Bezos repeatedly came back to the idea of patience, saying that there are "no shortcuts to doing this right." He cited the company motto, Gradatim ferociter, a Latin phrase meaning "Step by step, ferociously."

This "long-term orientation" is what Bezos references when he's asked why an Internet commerce mogul should lead a spaceflight company.

"The willingness to be patient and to know we're going to have to iterate, that we're going to have to keep going," he said. "That kind of steadiness, I think, is unbelievably valuable, and that's something that I can bring that's actually difficult for even NASA to sometimes bring or any kind of government-funded program [that] is sometimes subject to starts and stops."

(Bezos later added that he is a "big fan of NASA" and sees the organization being able to jump into "more and more dramatic" pursuits as the private spaceflight industry increasingly takes over operations in Earth orbit.)

In a 2012 interview with Space Insider, Brett Alexander, director of strategy and business development for Blue Origin, said the company's relative silence is motivated by a desire to stay focused on action rather than talk.

"We like to talk about things we've done, not things we're planning to do," Alexander said. "So, it's more about accomplishments. After all, the space business is hard. Things always take longer than you'd expect."

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, which is developing the SpaceShipTwo commercial space plane, is now somewhat notorious for making early predictions about when the company will be ready to fly customers. (In 2004, Branson predicted SpaceShipTwo would be up and running by 2007.) So far, Virgin Galactic has not flown a single customer, and a fatal test crash in 2014 has delayed the company's progress.

Even Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, has put forth so many futuristic technology ideas that he's earned a reputation as the "real-life Tony Stark," in reference to the fictional comic book billionaire/inventor also known as Iron Man.

In addition to his SpaceX duties, Musk serves as CEO of Tesla Motors, which manufactures electric cars,and chairman of the solar-energy company SolarCity. Furthermore, in 2013, he proposed the idea of a transportation system called the Hyperloop that would carry passengers from place to place on Earth at speeds of about 760 mph (1,220 km/h).

Musk has spoken at length about his ideas for building a Mars colony — indeed, he has said he founded SpaceX in 2002 primarily to help humanity become a multiplanet species.

In talking with reporters in Florida, Bezos pushed aside comparisons between himself and the likes of Musk and Branson, stating that he is "a fan of anybody who's investing in space," and that "space is pretty big, there are a lot of opportunities and there's room for multiple winners." He later added, "Our biggest opponent in this endeavor is gravity."

But it is difficult not to compare Bezos with Musk and the other prominent billionaires involved in the spaceflight industry. Both Bezos and Musk made their fortunes with companies that have played major roles in developing Internet commerce (Bezos with the pioneering e-commerce site Amazon.com and Musk with the online payment system PayPal). Both men are also known for having extremely high expectations of their employees, and it is interesting to consider whether that is a necessary trait for people trying to overcome the challenge of making spaceflight significantly more affordable and reliable.

In addition, SpaceX and Blue Origin are currently the only private spaceflight companies building vertically launched orbital rockets entirely in-house.

Both companies are also pursuing reusable rocket designs. Most current large rocket designs include a first-stage booster that gives the payload the initial push off the launchpad and then separates and falls back to Earth (typically falling into the ocean). This first stage is typically lost, and both Bezos and Musk have emphasized that making this section reusable would dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight.

Both Blue Origin and SpaceX have first-stage rocket boosters that, instead of falling, are designed to land themselves safely on the ground after launch. SpaceX has tried twice in the past year to bring a Falcon 9 first stage down softly on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean. In both cases, the rocket did hit its target but came in too fast and couldn't stick a soft landing. With the loss of the Falcon 9 rocket last June, the company has had to push back any more test flights of the reusable rocket stage. [SpaceX Rocket's First Stage Crashes During Landing Attempt (Video)]

Blue Origin also tested its reusable rocket stage during April's test launch of New Shepard, without success.

SpaceX is currently a front-runner in many aspects of the commercial spaceflight industry and is on its way to offering extremely low-cost rocket launches (largely possible because the company builds everything in-house). The company is already using its Falcon 9 rocket to fly cargo deliveries to ISS for NASA, and is scheduled to fly astronauts there in 2017, using a crewed version of the Dragon capsule. (Boeing also aims to start flying NASA astronauts in 2017, using a capsule called the Starliner.)

Blue Origin recently entered into its first potentially profitable contract agreement with United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed in late 2006. ULA builds the Atlas and Delta series rockets, used frequently by NASA to send heavy payloads into space. Under the new collaboration, ULA will use Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine in its next-generation Vulcan rocket. Even though ULA has much more launch experience than either SpaceX or Blue Origin, with 100 successful launches as of Oct. 7, the company currently buys its engines from Russia.

SpaceX does not yet have any public agreements to sell its rocket engines, and has not stated any plans to get into space tourism.

Based on the way he engages with the public, Musk seems to think that part of changing the future is getting the general public excited about it. He's a late-night talk-show regular, and while he doesn't quite have the flair of the fictional Tony Stark, he doesn't deny the comparison. 

Bezos and Blue Origin have flown under the radar to date, but at the LC-36 announcement in Florida, he did seem to want to put forth a public identity — not that of a brilliant inventor, but of a kid inspired by the space program and science fiction stories.

"I read all of [Robert] Heinlein's novels and [Isaac] Asimov's novels, and I had all these dreams. I always thought we'd be further along than we are today," he told reporters. "I figured by now, we'd be out gallivanting around the solar system. […] You know, if you were paying attention in the '60s and early '70s, it was a time of very rapid advance, and people thought that we would be going to Saturn by now. I'm still very optimistic about that. I think all that will happen."

Throughout his conversations with reporters, Bezos came back to the image of himself as a child, and the childlike wonder that people talk about when they reminisce about watching humans walk on the moon. Although he said he does believe spaceflight is a smart (i.e., profitable) business venture, this deep obsession with a science-fiction vision of the future seems to be the central motivator for Bezos in founding Blue Origin. And Bezos' vision for the company is ambitious: He repeated that his ultimate aim is to have "millions of people living and working in space."

"We humans need to become a spacefaring civilization," he said. "[Does Blue Origin] want to go to Mars? Absolutely. But we want to go everywhere. And if you want to go everywhere, then you need to dramatically lower the cost of space. That's what we're really focused on."

Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.