In a short letter to Amazon employees on February 2, Jeff Bezos announced he would be stepping down from his role as chief executive of the company, in order to focus on other initiatives. One of these initiatives is Blue Origin, a space exploration company that has been sitting in the shadow of SpaceX for years. Will Bezos use this newly opened up time and energy to finally one-up his long-time rival Elon Musk?
Jeff Bezos: space tycoon
Bezos has had one of the most epic runs in business -- ever. Starting from humble beginnings in which he bootstrapped Amazon in his garage in 1995, the company is now worth $1.7 trillion. The company first started out selling books, but now offers basically everything from kitchen appliances to container houses.
After 25 years of relentless growth, Bezos, now 57, is ready to move on to other things. In his letter, he explained he'll transition to the role of executive chair of the Amazon board, while Andy Jassy, the current chief of the incredibly successful Amazon Web Services, will step up as CEO of the company.
However, this doesn't mean that Bezos is ready to retire to some private island and enjoy the spoils reserved for the world's richest person. On the contrary, he seems quite keen on pursuing his other ventures.
"Being the CEO of Amazon is a deep responsibility, and it’s consuming. When you have a responsibility like that, it’s hard to put attention on anything else. As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions. I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have," Bezos wrote in the farewell letter to his Amazonians.
Bezos has always been passionate about space exploration. While a student at Princeton, where he majored in electrical engineering and computer science, he headed the local chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.
But after university, he started a career in finance, working as the vice-president of a hedge fund before founding his legendary first business. Once Amazon took off, his sights were set back to space ventures.
Not a lot of people are aware of this, but Bezos actually founded Blue Origin in 2000, which is two years before Elon Musk started SpaceX.
But while SpaceX has steamrolled its competition, including NASA itself, by launching a record number of commercial satellites and astronauts to orbit, Blue Origin is lagging far behind -- or at least that's what seems to be happening.
From what we know, which is very little, Blue Origin may actually be ahead (although that's unlikely). Since it was founded, Blue Origin has always been shrouded in mystery and secrecy.
It was only in the last five years or so that the company's public relations started to open up, steadily emerging from stealth. Bezos himself even welcomed a group of reporters during a tour of the company's headquarters in Kent, Washington, where he talked about some of the company's major projects.
One of them was New Shepard, the company's first operational rocket and the world's first reusable rocket that touched down on a landing pad, just a couple of weeks before SpaceX demonstrated its Falcon 9 reusability in December 2015. Granted, New Shepard can only operate in the suborbital field, while Falcon 9 has a much bigger range capable of sending payloads to orbit.
Bezos has presided over some high-profile publicity events for the company, such as the unveiling of the Blue Moon lunar lander or the first touchdown of the New Shepard reusable rocket, his role at Blue Origin has always been limited.
Up until now, Bezos devoted around one day a week to Blue Origin operations, which he kept alive by funding the company with $1 billion of his own money every year.
Building the space infrastructure of the future
While Musk's ultimate vision is that of founding a Martian colony inhabited by thousands of people during his lifetime, Bezos is no less ambitious. His long-term vision for Blue Origin is to provide a platform where millions of people live and work in space in free-floating colonies.
That might sound like a pipedream, but the Amazon founder speaks from experience. He witnessed first-hand how computing power and bandwidth combined to create multi-trillion dollar markets for online businesses. Once space is cheap and safe, entrepreneurs will rush to the market just like they did when they felt confident the internet was mature enough.
In fact, Bezos's idea of the future implies that for most of us Earth would be just a place to visit. Instead, someday, much of the world's population will live and work in space, thereby sparing the planet from pollution and the encroachment of nature. We'd visit Earth as we would a national park today..
Bezos has often remarked that there have never been more than 13 humans in space at one time. He finds this reality sad and woefully unambitious, which is why he's funneling billions of his own money to change things.
A sneak peek of this vision can be seen in the company's upcoming projects, which include taking tourists on suborbital trips, launching satellites on its reusable rockets, as well as astronauts to the space station, and developing a lunar lander for NASA. Mirroring SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet venture, Amazon is developing Project Kuiper, which will form a constellation of satellites meant to beam the internet to any place on Earth. Blue Origin will of course be in charge of putting all of these tiny internet satellites into orbit.
For most of the two decades since its existence, Blue Origin was often seen as Jeff Bezos' 'rocket company', almost like it was some hobby, a pet project. But now that he seems more committed, Blue Origin could occupy a more central role in Bezos' life. We know that it was his relentless drive for growth that propelled Amazon to the stratosphere, where the air is so rare only a few tech giants like Google and Apple can boast of over $1 trillion market caps. Perhaps the same attitude and energy might drive BlueOrigin to shoot for the stars.