There are plenty of reasons to look at Jeff Bezos’ trip to the edge of space and roll your eyes. It’s fair to see it as just another vanity project of a billionaire who has run out of things to spend money on here on earth. After all, traveling to space is apparently the privilege of only the wealthiest people on earth.
It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as having nothing to do with your life other than the fact that your Amazon.com purchases probably played a small role in paying for Bezos’ trip. “You paid for this,” Bezos in fact said in an awkward thanks to Amazon’s employees and customers.
I think you could even argue that the fact Bezos was on Tuesday’s launch does more to distract from the importance of the flight. To understand why, however, you have to expand the timeline.
“The solar system can easily support a trillion humans,” Bezos said in an interview a few years ago with Mathias Döpfner while accepting the Axel Springer Award. “And if we had a trillion humans, we’d have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts… and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources from solar power.”
That’s an ambitious goal, but it starts to explain why Bezos has been selling $1 billion worth of Amazon stock a year to fund Blue Origin. Bezos has, on more than one occasion, said that Blue Origin will be a far more consequential legacy than Amazon, the $1.8 trillion company he led until earlier this month.
“That’s the world I want my great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren to live in,” Bezos told Döpfner.
Sure, that sounds very science fiction, and probably not something any of us will ever see happen during our lifetimes. Bezos knows that, and he knows it’s an audacious goal.
In some ways, Amazon was always about generating the money that could fund a far more ambitious project–saving the world. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I’m pretty sure Bezos believes it. He’s certainly said it. Even in the press conference after landing safely back here on earth, Bezos talked about how his ultimate goal is to move “polluting industry” into space in order to take care of this planet.
Consider that Blue Origin’s first manned flight was fully automated. It was able to take off, travel to space, return to earth, and land safely, without a pilot on board. It was a first step 20 years in the making, but Blue Origin has far bigger goals. In his press conference after landing safely back here on earth, Bezos explained that “the whole point of this is to get practice.”
That starts to explain why Bezos’ trip to get his astronaut wings is a bigger deal than it might look on the surface. I’m not suggesting that the whole thing doesn’t look a lot like a publicity stunt. It does, and a well-crafted one at that. I’m not even suggesting that any of what Bezos is attempting will work.
All I’m saying is this: Whatever you think of Bezos–and there are certainly plenty of reasons to criticize him both professionally and personally–what happened on Tuesday was about more than a billionaire’s vanity project. If humanity’s future is in space someday, someone has to be trying to find a way to get us there.
Which leads to a simple lesson. It’s okay to recognize something good, even when it’s from someone you don’t care for. It’s okay to point out the fact that there are very few people in the world with the resources to try to make space a part of humanity’s future. We should encourage it.
That’s why Tuesday’s launch was the first step towards something that could someday matter very much–maybe not to you and me, but to our great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren.