As most everyone within reach of this article knows, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, CEO of a company that has not one but two (or is it three) headquarter sites, likes to aim high. As a smaller number of people know, aiming high is not just limited to Amazon’s unrelenting march across the world’s commercial landscape. It also includes a goal that is literally high — a private spacecraft company called Blue Origin that aims to take passengers, not just astronauts, into space, beginning with suborbital flights as early as 2019.
And, as very few people know, the dreams of conquering the high frontier began many years ago, and was given a boost at Princeton University, where Bezos studied with Gerard O’Neill, a professor of physics and advocate of human colonies in space.
Bezos’s space aspirations are illuminated in a feature story in the November issue of Wired magazine. And the Princeton professor’s role in the movement to develop space is the subject of a forthcoming documentary film.
We were poised to write about all this a few weeks ago. But then Bezos and Amazon unveiled the much-anticipated location, or locations, of Amazon’s new headquarters. Now that we are back to earth, we can turn to the celestial scene. First some background:
Jeff Bezos’s head was in the clouds since at least the age of 5, when he watched in awe the Apollo 11 moon landing. Growing up in Houston and then Florida, he read science fiction, especially works involving space exploration. As valedictorian of his high school class in 1982, Bezos spoke about how he looked forward to seeing millions of people someday living in space. “Space, the final frontier, meet me there!” he said.
At Princeton Bezos soon discovered O’Neill, who had joined the Princeton faculty in 1954. O’Neill was known for developing a particle storage ring device, which helps scientists understand subatomic particles. But he also had an eye on the sky. When NASA invited scientists to compete for places in its post-Apollo astronaut program in 1966, O’Neill went through months of training and testing, and was picked as a finalist — only to have the program canceled.
Back on campus, and trying to inject some relevance into his course in the late 1960s, O’Neill designed a freshman physics course around the question: “Is the surface of the planet Earth really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?” The exercise led to a scenario for creating space colonies that — free from gravity and with access to solar power — could operate much more efficiently than anything on earth.
By the time Bezos was on campus, O’Neill had written a book, “The High Frontier,” and had organized the Space Studies Institute. Bezos became president of the campus chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. After his 1986 graduation Bezos’s first step was to work for a hedge fund, where he came up with the crazy (at the time) idea to create an online bookstore, which he would call Amazon.
Here the article in Wired magazine picks up the launch of Bezos’s space venture, beginning not long after he started Amazon in 1994:
[Bezos] was seated at a dinner party with science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. Their conversation quickly left the bounds of Earth. “There’s sort of a matching game that goes on where you climb a ladder, figuring out the level of someone’s fanaticism about space by how many details they know,” Stephenson says. “He was incredibly high on that ladder.” The two began spending weekend afternoons shooting off model rockets.
In 1999, Stephenson and Bezos went to see the movie “October Sky,” about a boy obsessed with rocketry, and stopped for coffee afterward. Bezos said he’d been thinking for a long time about starting a space company. “Why not start it today?” Stephenson asked. The next year, Bezos incorporated a company called Blue Operations LLC [later called Blue Origin]. Stephenson secured space in a former envelope factory in a funky industrial area in south Seattle. Other early members of the team included Pablos Holman, a self-described computer hacker, and serial inventor Danny Hillis, who had crafted a proposal to build a giant mechanical clock that would run for 10,000 years. Bezos also recruited Amazon’s general counsel, Alan Caplan, a fellow space nerd. (“We both agreed we’d like to retire on Mars,” Caplan says.) These people were more thinkers than rocketeers, but at Blue Origin’s start the point was to brainstorm: Had any ideas been overlooked that could shake up space travel the way the internet had upended terrestrial commerce?
Another early participant was George Dyson, a science historian and son of physicist Freeman Dyson [now retired from the Institute for Advanced Study]. At the 1999 PC Forum, an elite tech event run by Dyson’s sister, Esther, Bezos made a beeline for George, who had been writing about a little-known 1950s venture called Project Orion . . . to propel space vehicles with atomic bomb explosions, and Bezos wanted to know all about it. As Dyson recalls, Bezos saw Orion as “his model for a small group of crazy people deciding to go into space without the restrictions of being an official government project.”
In the small world department, the author of the Wired article is Steve Levy, whose enjoyed an early career scoop in 1978, when New Jersey Monthly was based on Nassau Street in Princeton and he was a staff writer, assigned to track down the whereabouts of Einstein’s brain. (It’s a long story.)
Levy’s writing career eventually took him to Wired magazine. He got the interview with Bezos only after agreeing to watch a recently discovered video of a 1975 PBS program, in which host Harold Hayes interviewed the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and, yes, Gerry O’Neill. The video has a moment that points to the difference between most of us and people like O’Neill and Bezos. Hayes posed a question to Asimov. In some 158 written works at that point, had he ever considered the concept of a space colony? “Nobody did, really,” replied Asimov, “because we’ve all been planet chauvinists.”
Everyone except O’Neill, that was. He was soon followed by a band of acolytes, who flocked to conferences advancing the space colony vision and helped maintain the Space Studies Institute, now based in California. The interest has continued even after O’Neill died from a long battle with leukemia in 1992 at age 65.
Keeping me apprised of all these developments is Tasha O’Neill, Gerry’s widow, whom I first met in 1977 when I wrote a profile of O’Neill for People magazine. Tasha still lives in Princeton, is active as an artist and photographer, and continues to stay in touch with many of those space colony acolytes, known informally as “Gerry’s kids.” Tasha tells me that the producers of the forthcoming documentary film have already interviewed her and are contacting other people interested in the space exploration movement.
The interview subjects could well include Bezos, and the film might be complete around the same time as Bezos puts his first people into space — sometime in 2019.
It does sound a little pie in the sky. And Bezos is said to be spending about $1 billion a year on his space effort. But not to worry: The Amazon CEO’s personal wealth is estimated at about $150 billion. You can call him well grounded.