Jeff who, you ask?
A few days ago, Jeff Bezos, recently best known for appearing in the gossip rags, finally shared his full vision for the future of humans in space. Oh, and in 1994 he also founded the most valuable company on planet Earth in Amazon. Lest we forget that detail.
Blue Origin, which is kind of like the nerdy little brother of the jock SpaceX, was founded back in 2000. So that actually makes it the older brother by two years! The companies really do represent their iconic billionaire founders. SpaceX is bold, even aggressive, highly inventive, not afraid to break some eggs, and always missing deadlines. Just like Elon and all his projects.
In contrast, Jeff is a more measured, modest man. His hedge fund background speaks of a silent, calculating type of genius comparing to Elon’s brash Ironman machismo. While Elon is constantly painting wildly exciting and probably grossly optimistic plans for the future, Jeff has been rather quiet considering the nearly two decades of work his team has put in by now.
Yes, he’s launched a few rockets. A little smaller and stubbier than Elon’s. *cough* Yes, those rockets can land vertically, just like Elon’s. But so far, for every dramatic haymaker that Elon has thrown, Jeff has settled for a methodical if unexciting jab. The real difference between the companies is how they are funded. SpaceX, a private company, sources new funding every 6 months from outside investors, building on an ever-inflating demand for anything with Elon’s name written on it. So far, that hype bubble is growing and working just splendidly.
Jeff, on the other hand, has a golden ticket. Amazon is the world’s largest company, hovering around a trillion dollar market cap. Compared to the tumultuous roller-coaster ride of Elon’s pay ticket Tesla, Amazon seems almost institutional at this point and just keeps going from strength to strength in its domination of the global online retail market. This means that Jeff funds Blue Origin to the order of $1 billion each year, out of pocket, by selling a small fraction of his Amazon shares. Even after his world-record expensive divorce, he could go on doing this for decades at this pace.
No-one is going to tell Jeff anything about what to do, how to do it, or when to do it. Given this lack of pressure, he hasn’t raced into the commercial space market as aggressively as Elon. Elon has to, to show revenue growth to justify the exponential valuation bubble to keep his dream of Mars alive.
So what is Jeff up to…?
Millions of humans living and working in space
This post was particularly fun for me to write, as I had pieced together his vision and narrative from a variety of sources a few months back, including interviews and reports on Blue Origin over the years. All of it came together beautifully in Jeff’s presentation. They all led to the same source: Gerard O’Neill, who Jeff references early on in his presentation. Apparently, new employees at Blue Origin are showed a video interview of Gerard O’Neill as part of their orientation. Gerard who, you ask?
“What do we need for the exponential growth of wealth? Three things: energy, land area, and materials.” — Gerard O’Neill, 1976
Gerard was a faculty member and teacher at Princeton in the ‘70s. He taught physics, not space exploration. That wasn’t part of the curriculum. But his passion had always been space. So after school, he would gather with his students to work on the problems that really excited him. Space problems. One of the key outcomes of this brainstorming was a totally unique solution to the practical issue at hand. How does one start space colonization?
Do you go to Mars? The Moon? Moons of Saturn? Do you dig underground to hide from radiation, or terraform them somehow? No. None of the above. Their solution was so unique, that even sci-fi writers like Isaac Asimov hadn’t thought of it. Oh, guess who was one of those after-school students? Jeff Bezos. It must’ve been like Dead Poet’s Society, only instead of poetry, it was orbital physics. Maybe not such a cool movie, then.
The O’Neill Cylinder
What they came up with was a concept that solved the main three problems humanity was facing, particularly poignant in the time of the oil crisis: limited resources, limited room, and limited energy. The team of energetic students led by the idealistic O’Neill set to the practical task of how to move humanity into space. They invented the O’Neill Cylinder.
The team came up with several generations of iteratively larger artificial worlds — that’s what this is about! Rather than spending trillions, generations, and centuries to change a red planet into a blue planet, we would just… build worlds.
The first version would be like the International Space Station on steroids. If the ISS houses 9 people at over-capacity, the first version was targeting… wait for it… 10,000 people. Yes, did you expect a group of naive students led by an optimist in the hippie-era to be messing around? C’mon now. The first version would already be 500 yards in diameter. That’s big for space. Heck, that’s big for Earth, too.
The rough idea is that since the Moon and Mars have way less gravity than Earth, which isn’t great since humans evolved in exactly 1g, the only way known to physics to create some extra gravity is by spinning things. Well, you could also accelerate forever, but that requires an infinite power source, so spinning it is! Like a three dimensional, billion-dollar merry-go-round. Maybe trillion. In space. Then you live on the inside of the bubble. Cylinder. Thing.
They really thought of everything. How much material would be needed, how to build them in space, how many rockets to ferry that and thousands of people across, how much soil to block radiation, how to get enough but not too much sunlight inside, what to do if a leak happened, jobs people would do, the economy and politics that would develop, etc.. O’Neill wrote a book in 1976 that had it all planned out.
We would place these new mini-worlds in stable neutral zones around the Earth and Moon called Lagrange points, where the gravitational pull of these two heavenly bodies cancels out against the Sun… and objects in space are fixed in one spot. Lagrange point 5 or “L5” was the sweet spot, and it’s the same distance from Earth as the Moon. That means that we don’t have to go very far, and they won’t crash into other things like, well, us folks on Earth. That’s a good feature.
So if the starting point is a small town, what’s the end game here? Well, by Island 2 you already went from town to city at 140,000 people. The main event here is Island 3 at a cool million. Yep. Full-on city in space. In a space tube roughly 5 miles in diameter, and stretching up to 20 miles deep. It’s a big thing. It’s hard to picture.
What could that look like? Hmm…
NOTE: I had even completed this post with diagrams created by amateur artists, so it was a real treat to finally see Jeff applying his passion and resources to show us what is possible. It really is something you’ve not only never seen before, but never read about in sci-fi either.
C’moooooon. How does that not blow you away? Woooo, Jeff!!
In case you were wondering, yes, that’s a recreation of the Italian Renaissance city of Florence. Complete with Arno river replica. In a space tube. Jeff and Gerard make the point that this isn’t life on a space station like you know it. Floating around in a series of claustrophobic connected portapotties wearing space diapers. No. This is like Earth on it’s best day, in your favorite location, every day. You would want to live here.
Wait, who’s paying for this again?
Jeff actually came out and made it clear he’s not actually building that. Sad face. Meaning the task is just too gargantuan in scale even with his near-unlimited resources. Instead, he’s going to focus on two enablers, or gates, as he called them. That will allow future generations of space entrepreneurs to solve the unfathomable challenges that will go into moving humanity permanently into space.
“A worthwhile line of technical development must have a useful lifetime without running into absurdities of at least several hundred years.” — Gerard O’Neill, 1976
Gerard was far more optimistic, almost naive. He did the math, with the technology and optimism of 1976, that space-based solar power would pay for the whole gig. Because with no gravity or atmosphere, you could build ginormous and super-efficient solar arrays. And then microwave power back to Earth from orbit. No, really. Also, mining the moon. Plus asteroids. As soon as you got the cost per kilogram to orbit low enough, and invested a little spare cash, you would get to an inflection point where space-electricity would be cheaper and cheaper compared to Earth-electricity.
This wasn’t idle talk. This was a business case and a project plan. To actually do it, not in centuries, but by… well, by now. Obviously, last I checked none of that had happened, so what went wrong?
The tragic story of Gerard O’Neill
I’m not sure what is the bigger tragedy, that it never happened at all, or that he got so far and almost pulled it off? If you read his book and the legacy he left behind, you can totally see how with a few twists of fate he might have been Elon Musk in 1980. Not kidding, even.
He was so convinced about the feasibility, potential, and ultimately necessity of this vision, that he got out of the classroom and started speaking publicly. To anyone who would listen. For a long time, it led absolutely nowhere… until suddenly, out of the blue, NASA called. He was invited to speak to the Senate. NASA funded studies into his ideas. Plans and concepts were made. Budgets were drawn out. Timelines estimated. It was really, really happening!
And then it all went away. Disaster struck.
The Challenger explosion of 1986 was the nail in the coffin, of not only Gerard’s vision with NASA but the whole American space program. This was the time of the post-oil crisis, and public appetite for expensive future-first public spending dried up. Gerard’s book contains a slightly bitter yet unrelenting appendix he wrote in 1988, ten years after the first edition, to reflect on what could have been, but clearly wasn’t to be.
“During the long drawn out development of the Shuttle, the habitation of near-orbital space, begun so promisingly with Skylab, was abandoned entirely. In 1973 the U.S. space program had been fifteen years ahead of all others. By 1988 that lead had been thrown away.” — Gerard O’Neill, 1988
Gerard never gave up, and he persisted. He came up with a low-cost magnetic launcher system for the Moon, called the Mass Driver. He invented “vactrain”, a kind of Hyperloop based on magnetic levitation. Oh, and something he called local area wireless networking. Yeah WIFI, just decades ahead of its time. He patented a satellite tracking system for consumer use, got funding for it, and actually launched the first satellites in 1988. This is before GPS, I’ll note. If NASA wouldn’t do it, he would.
He founded the Space Studies Institute, to further the cause for generations to come. He even granted the institute most of the shares of his companies, valued at tens of millions at the time. He was the guy. He had crazy ideas. He designed new technologies. He created them. 0 to 1. He was making it happen like Tony Stark in real life.
It wasn’t to be, tragically. Gerard had already suffered from leukemia for a few years, and couldn’t keep going at this pace. His companies ran into trouble and the satellite technology was sold piecemeal to Motorola, eventually becoming part of the Iridium satellite project, now a customer of SpaceX.
Gerard passed away from complications in treating leukemia in 1992. Five years later, on board a rocket of his own, Gerard O’Neill’s ashes passed the Karman Line 100 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, and he finally made it to orbit, where he had always belonged…
What is now clear is that Jeff is finally picking up the torch, that Gerard left largely unattended for almost 30 years, and had almost gone out. The years between Challenger and 2011, when the last space shuttle lifted off were sad, given all the progress that the Apollo Program triggered in 1961. We went to the Moon for the last time in 1972. That’s almost 50 years, for heaven’s sake!
So if Jeff isn’t building cylinders just yet, what exactly is he proposing?
Gate 1: Infrastructure to get into space
Jeff uses a fitting and emotional analogy to his story with Amazon. You could only do Amazon in 1994, because of the work that had been done before his time. Most homes had computers. You had affordable internet access. You had fast overnight shipping. Amazon was only possible at that time. Not even five years earlier. He stood on the shoulders of giants, like all great creators before him.
So Jeff is focusing on infrastructure. Which in the case of space mostly means rockets. Why are rockets so important? Because they’re the only way of getting into space. The one thing that Gerard, Jeff, and Elon agree on is that reusability is key. Physics and chemistry give us clear limits on what is possible in terms of the energy needed to lift things, but as Jeff points out, the fuel cost for a rocket launch isn’t a major part of the cost anymore. It’s a million dollars of fuel, which sounds a lot, but then again the average launch still costs around $60 million. The other factor is the size of the payload. Even if the cost per launch doesn’t come down, or even increases, if we develop bigger rockets the cost per kilo goes down. That’s the problem that Elon has been focusing on with Falcon Heavy and the next-gen Starship.
“Years later, when more efficient vehicles are developed, we can expect that the costs for passage from the Earth to L5 will be reduced, ultimately to only a few thousand dollars. “— Gerard O’Neill, 1976
While nothing new for space geeks, Jeff reminded us of the upcoming New Glenn heavy rocket, which can actually fit their current New Shephard rocket in its payload container. That’s progress. It will be roughly on par with Falcon Heavy, but it’s going to be mighty impressive to see in action. When? Again, this isn’t Elon talking, so he’s saying we’ll see it launch in 2021. Ugh, waiting for the future to happen sucks.
Blue Origin probably already had the best rocket engine in the industry in the BE-4. Sorry, Elon. Now they came out with BE-7. It’s miniscule. Why would you build a tiny engine, when you already had the biggest engine? Because once you get into space, you don’t need massive engines. And it runs on oxygen and hydrogen, which can be found on the Moon. For example. If you were inclined to pop by, or whatever.
While Jeff didn’t mention it anywhere, the name New Armstrong has floated around the internet for a while, suggesting something to compete toe-to-toe with the SpaceX Starship. Elon wins on names though.
So that all gets us into space. What do we do… in space? Once we get there, that is.
Gate 2: Using in-space resources
Again, deeply inspired and motivated by Gerard’s groundbreaking work on the topic, Jeff thinks we should go to the Moon. Permanently. Go there. Gather resources. Build stuff. Launch that stuff. Why?
Because leaving Earth is super hard. From the above diagram, you can tell why it’s called a “gravity well”. It’s deep. Hard to climb out of. Like an actual well. So why would you jump into a well, build stuff there, and then go through the pain each time of carrying stuff out? Well, mostly because we live in the well.
“Someone calculated how much room for growth there will be once we start to use the asteroidal material. The answer came out absurdly high: with the known unused materials out there, we could build space communities with a total land area 3,000 times that of Earth.” — Gerard O’Neill, 1976
But if you could escape the gravity well, but still had access to resources like metals and gases, well then… things get interesting. If you dream of building massive space objects like space stations, giant space telescopes, satellite power stations, or even O’Neill Cylinders, then you want to build those in space. Yes, building in space sounds much harder, but with 3D printing, robotics, and automation, and umm… lack of gravity and oxygen, there’s also a lot of things that can be easier in space.
Now I’ve never thought Jeff to have much showmanship in him. That has always been Elon’s game. Think landing boosters on drone ships. Falcon Heavy. Starman in the Tesla Roadster. He does the best marketing, without actually doing marketing. Cue the curtains…
“Let me show you something.” — Jeff Bezos
WHAT THE F*** IS THAT?? — me watching the video
Jeff literally pulls the curtain on a frickin’ moon lander. The size of… I don’t know, it’s really huge! When did he do this? I thought he was busy stopping the press from leaking his inappropriate, and highly unnecessary, nude selfies. I stand corrected, sir! Chapeau, Jeff!
It seems that for the last three years, Blue Origin has been building a moon lander. It works. They’ve thought it through, from hydrogen fuel cells that run when the sun isn’t available, down to the size of landing gear feet. It’s real. They’re actually going to the moon. Not as in a rocket ride around the moon, like Elon’s starship full of artists and an eccentric Japanese billionaire, but actually go. Actually, land. Actually, stay. Moonbase, anyone?!
NASA’s goal is to go to the Moon, for good, in the next 5 years. Yes, that’s 2024! The one, and perhaps only, thing government is good at is setting big goals. Jeff is on board, and apparently already has a long list of clients and partners for the Blue Moon, including Airbus and MIT, ready for commercial and scientific missions.
Kudos to you Jeff. You’ve finally publicly taken the baton that your mentor and idol Gerard O’Neill left, and inspiring us to follow you on this adventure. Let me leave you with this beautiful quote from Robert Goddard, one of the pioneers of early space flight and inspiration to Gerard O’Neill, and all of us who dream of space.
“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” — Robert Goddard