Jeff Bezos is an Internet entrepreneur and also the founder of Blue Origin. The company is known for its work on New Shepard — a suborbital space rocket that includes a crew capsule for future paying passengers. New Shepard made a world-first first-stage rocket landing on land in 2015. Blue Origin is also working on a larger, orbital rocket called New Glenn that is expected to fly around 2020.
Bezos made his fortune as the founder and CEO of Amazon, a company that greatly contributed to the establishment of electronic commerce (e-commerce) as a viable business model. He also owns the Washington Post. He was named Time's Person of the Year in 1999 and according to Forbes, has an estimated net worth of $126.5 billion in 2018.
Teenage dreams of space
Born to teenage parents, Bezos had an itinerant childhood that saw him grow up in several U.S. cities. He spent the summers at his grandfather's ranch in Texas.
"His grandfather sparked and indulged Jeff's fascination with educational games and toys, assisting him with the Heathkits and the other paraphernalia he constantly hauled home to the family garage," read a 2004 profile of Bezos in Wired magazine. (Heathkits were do-it-yourself kits for building electronic products.)
"Picture the scattered components of a robot; an open umbrella spine clad in aluminum foil for a solar cooking experiment; an ancient Hoover vacuum cleaner being transformed into a primitive hovercraft."
Bezos' energy for innovation kept his family busy as he was growing up, but his interests did not wane as he got older. Even as a teenager, Bezos wanted to get involved in space — not as an astronaut, but an entrepreneur. It seemed a heady dream for a teenager in the 1970s and 1980s, but Bezos was reportedly determined. First, though, he would need to make a pile of money.
He chose the nascent field of computer science to make his fortune, getting his start working for several companies in the field. In 1994, Bezos founded Amazon with a plan to sell books over the Internet. From humble beginnings in his garage, Bezos expanded his e-business into an empire selling everything from toasters to clothing to car parts. Amazon also burst into the e-publishing market with the Kindle, and brokered agreements with publishers to sell new electronic books at a reduced price compared to hardcovers.
Spaceflight in secret
In 2000 — shortly after Bezos was named Time's Person of the Year for his work on the Internet — Bezos turned his attention to space. He quietly founded a company called Blue Origin, which would develop a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing rocket ship that could pop passengers into suborbital space.
According to media reports, Bezos kept his plans very quiet for years. Most of the company's information came out through mandatory disclosures to the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA as Bezos sought regulatory approvals and funding.
It wasn't until the late 2000s when Blue Origin had a detailed website and promotional materials available on it, in stark contrast to companies such as SpaceX.
In 2011, Blue Origin faced a public setback, when a vehicle was destroyed during a test. Bezos revealed the failure a week after the fact in a short blog post on Blue Origin's website, saying a flight instability affected the angle of attack and ultimately caused the vehicle to crash.
In October 2012, Blue Origin revealed it had conducted a successful rocket escape test, which is a key milestone in rating the spacecraft safe for humans to ride. Although the system is supposed to work on the suborbital spacecraft, the company also plans to use the technology for its orbital flights. [Photos: Glimpses of Secretive Blue Origin's Private Spaceships]
"The progress Blue Origin has made on its suborbital and orbital capabilities really is encouraging for the overall future of human spaceflight," NASA CCP manager Ed Mango said in an October 2012 statement. "It was awesome to see a spacecraft NASA played a role in developing take flight."
New Shepard and New Glenn
Blue Origin's aim is to commercially launch a rocket called New Shepard — which is named after Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space in 1961. The rocket has a crew module, as well as a propulsion section that boosts the ship for the first few minutes of flight.
As of mid-2018, the rocket has made several successful test flights. Its reusable first stage was the first in the world to touch down safely on land, in 2015. Paying passengers aren't expected until at least 2018 — likely later. However, a Dec. 12, 2017, flight did carry a mannequin called Skywalker as well as several revenue-generating experiments.
Blue Origin received $22 million in 2011 under NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program to spur the development of New Shepard's design and escape system. All told, the company garnered about $26 million from NASA in the first two rounds of funding, but was not included in subsequent rounds. (NASA ultimately selected SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 as the spacecraft to begin bringing crews to the International Space Station.)
The company's long-term goal is to do orbital flights, Blue Origin stated, using a reusable first stage instead of one that is expendable. This is being realized through a new rocket design called New Glenn, which may fly around the year 2020. Contracts have already been signed with paying customers for payloads aboard this rocket. [Infographic: Blue Origin's Secretive Space Vehicle Explained]
Other Bezos activities
Amazon was named the largest online shopping retailer worldwide in 2013. Bezos received a contract valued at $600 million that year from the Central Intelligence Agency on behalf of Amazon Web Services. He also bought the Washington Post for $250 million, and met with Richard Branson (chair of Virgin Galactic) to discuss commercial spaceflight opportunities.
Bezos sold about 2 million of his Amazon shares in 2016 (worth $671 million and $756.7 million in two separate transactions). The next year, he hired 130,000 new employees over several company distribution centers. He sold about $1 billion in Amazon stock in late 2017, and initiated another sale in early 2018 to raise cash for Blue Origin.
President Donald Trump complained in 2018 that Amazon (and Bezos) were avoiding taxes and accused the company of anti-competitive business practices. The company's share price temporarily fell by 9 percent. The share prices increased again, however, around the same time that Stanford University showed that Trump had little power to regulate Amazon in the near term.