Bezos In Space

What is blue origin? The name adorns a blue awning outside a 53,000-square-foot, one-story warehouse on a desolate side street along Seattle's Duwamish Waterway. SUVs and motorcycles are lined up out front seven days a week, often late into the night. There's no record of the company in the city's phone books, and its workers will tell their neighbors only that the firm pursues scientific research. But the databases of the state of Washington offer more tantalizing clues. They reveal that Blue Origin is actually a space-research company and that the business was registered in 2000 from an office in Seattle's old Pacific Medical Center, a building that since 1998 has been occupied by the world's largest Internet retailer,

In other words, Jeff Bezos is getting into the space business.

To close followers of Forbes's 100th wealthiest American, this should come as no surprise. On Amazon's site, the 39-year-old billionaire himself enthusiastically reviews books about space. Bezos says in interviews that the early NASA missions into orbit and to the moon inspired him when he was young, and that he dreamed of becoming an astronaut. In his 1982 high-school valedictory speech at Palmetto High School in Miami, he spoke about colonizing space to secure humanity's future.

Now he has a $1.7 billion fortune to try to convert that dream into reality. NEWSWEEK has learned that Bezos created Blue Origin, also known as Blue Operations LLC, to pursue his fervent dream of establishing an enduring human presence in space. He has surreptitiously recruited a stable of rocketeers: physicists, ex-NASA scientists, veterans of failed space start-ups and even sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson ("Snow Crash" and "Cryptonomicon"), who has a lifelong interest in rocketry. People familiar with the firm say Bezos spends part of a day each week at Blue, and is in frequent touch through e-mail, pinging his staff with technical questions. These sources say Blue Origin is actually building a spacecraft whose mission will be closely related to some of the first voyages that brought astronauts to the very edge of space. Confident that people want to travel beyond the Earth's atmosphere--even after a second shuttle disaster--Bezos and his engineers are in the process of working on rocket designs. They're adding staff and aiming toward launching a reusable space vehicle into suborbital space, with seven tourists onboard, in the next few years.

Bezos is boldly going where no dot-comer has gone before, but surprisingly, he's not alone. He's in the vanguard of a migration of successful high-tech entrepreneurs into the space industry. Millionaires Elon Musk, the founder of the online payment firm PayPal, and John Carmack, the genius coder behind the games Doom and Quake, are each building their own separate rocket companies. All these dreamers, and others in the movement, doubt if NASA will ever attempt anything else truly inspiring in their lifetimes. With the cocky self-assurance of entrepreneurs, they believe they can re-engineer rockets from the ground up, with modern information-technology systems, to accommodate spaceflight at a significantly lower cost than government bureaucrats now incur. Some space veterans, pointing to the poor history of private launch companies, think they might be underestimating how expensive and dangerous the final frontier can be. But the techies are motivated by their passion for space and science fiction, their confidence in their engineering and management skills and the challenge of solving the greatest technology problem ever known to humankind. Says Musk, "The computer and Internet revolutions have given a great deal of capital to the 'Star Wars' fans."

Musk's year-old SpaceX might be the most promising venture of the group. The 31-year-old South African earned multi-millions from the sale of Web-software maker Zip2 to Compaq in 1999 and of PayPal to eBay last year. He is sinking that wealth into an El Segundo, Calif., warehouse where 20 top rocket engineers are building a dual-stage, liquid-oxygen- and kerosene-powered rocket called the Falcon. Musk says the rocket will give private firms and government agencies that want to launch satellites a $6 million alternative to the cheapest existing rockets, which now cost $30 million per flight.

The Falcon, due to begin testing by the end of the year, is only the first step of Musk's plan to create a viable space business. Eventually, he wants to pave the way for safe and reliable airplane-like trips to space. Aerospace experts are watching SpaceX with interest and even some optimism. "If anyone can do it, Elon can. He has an incredible track record," says Mike Griffin, a former NASA exec and president of the venture-capital firm In-Q-Tel.

Carmack's goal is more modest. The 32-year-old creator of the wildly popular video shoot-'em-up Quake has formed a company called Armadillo Aerospace in Dallas. Its aim is to win the X Prize, a $10 million award offered by a St. Louis space-advocacy organization for the first team that sends a rocket carrying three people to an altitude of 62 miles (where space "begins")--not just once but two times within two weeks. For the past two years, Carmack and seven volunteers have been meeting in a warehouse to build a hydrogen-peroxide-powered rocket, with a parachute and compressible nose cone to ensure a soft landing. As with Musk, Carmack's real mission is to reform a stodgy space industry glued to decades-old technology. "There's a very good chance that nothing significant will change in space in the next 20 years if someone doesn't do something differently," he says.

Armadillo's most formidable rival for the X Prize is aircraft designer Burt Rutan. Two weeks ago in the Mojave Desert, Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, unveiled SpaceShipOne. The white rocket ship, shaped like an aerodynamic Nerf glider and fueled by nitrous oxide (laughing gas), will sit below a turbojet carrier plane called the White Knight. The plane will fly to 50,000 feet and release the ship, which will continue on to the edge of space. The whole trip will take 90 minutes, cover 35 miles and offer an incredible view. In an e-mail to NEWSWEEK, Rutan says his goal is not to capture the X Prize but to "investigate our capability to do manned space flight in an affordable and efficient way without any government help."

Rutan has spent a celebrated career designing airplanes like the Voyager, the first aircraft to fly around the world without refueling. He doesn't classify as an immigrant from high tech. But his group has the backing of a deep-pocketed "undisclosed customer" who is giving Scaled Composites remarkable flexibility to construct an expensive concept aircraft. Who is the benevolent benefactor? Many aerospace insiders think that it's Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. "Every little whisper and hint I hear says it's Allen," says a Rutan friend. (Allen's Vulcan Ventures refuses to comment on this widespread speculation; Rutan doesn't deny it, saying only, "I hadn't heard the Allen rumors before.")

And then there's Jeff Bezos and the enigmatic Blue Origin. Like Rutan's project, the firm is shrouded in secrecy, perhaps to guard against a frenzy of media scrutiny. Bezos himself says, "It's way premature for Blue to say or comment on anything because we haven't done anything worthy of comment." But NEWSWEEK has learned that the firm's first planned spacecraft is called New Shepard--a tribute to Alan Shepard, the first American in space--and that the preliminary designs call for vertical takeoff and thrusters to control the ship's vertical landing. The cost of development is estimated at $30 million. Engineers affiliated with the company were in Las Cruces, N.M., in early March, exploring territory near the White Sands Missile Range for a possible launch pad. The company is also funding scientists around the world who are researching unconventional propulsion systems like "wave rotors," which regulate the fuel into pulse engines to lower the weight and cost of getting to space.

None of this is going to be easy, of course. A highlights reel of previous private attempts at launching spacecrafts would resemble the films of all those bicycle-airplane mishaps that preceded the Wright brothers. Griffin of In-Q-Tel worries that the techies won't know how to handle a disaster. "A hardware crash in the space business is a lot more serious than a software crash in the computer business," he says. Hiring experienced space engineers is proving to be another challenge, particularly for Blue Origin, which is far from industry hubs in Texas and L.A. Then there's the industry's old admonition that suggests breaking the bonds of Earth is a lot more expensive than it first appears: "The quickest way to make a small fortune in the space business is to start out with a large fortune."

Bezos's large bank account may be his strongest asset. He and his high-tech cohorts have the resources to avoid getting bogged down in constant fund-raising. They are young and have time on their side. They believe colonizing other planets is a noble and philanthropic cause, initiated by presidents like Eisenhower and JFK. And they have a powerful desire to fulfill the promise made 42 years ago, when Yuri Gagarin and Shepard took the first small steps into what everyone hoped would be a long march into space.