Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos AP Photo - Ted S. Warren

Amazon founder's $1.3B per year gamble on space

JEFF Bezos isn't exactly strapped for cash, but the newly minted second richest man in the world is taking a $1.3 billion gamble each year on a moon shoot - quite literally.

The 53-year-old founder of online retail juggernaut Amazon has revealed he is selling $1.33 billion ($US1 billion) of the company's stock each year to fund his private space program, Blue Origin.

At the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado this week he showed off his "New Shepard" rocket booster and a full-scale mock capsule designed to carry humans to the edge of outer space - just past the Karman Line some 100 kilometres above Earth - and back.

Mr Bezos said innovations in rocket technology meant humanity was embarking on a new "golden age of space exploration" and vowed to lower the cost of space travel and start taking customers to space by next year.

The e-commerce entrepreneur did not say how much a ticket would cost but said he wanted to help push the industry to a place where competition would bring down prices.

"If we can make access to space low-cost, then entrepreneurs will be unleashed," he said. "You will see creativity, you will see dynamism, you will see the same thing in space that I've witnessed on the internet in the last 20 years."

In a move that has sent shockwaves through the Australian retail sector, Mr Bezos is in the process of bringing his Amazon empire Down Under. And for a company that has long favoured growth over profit, expansion could prove vital if Bezos is to continue funnelling money to his space venture.

During the symposium he also signalled his intention to develop a larger rocket dubbed "New Glenn" at the cost of $3.3 billion ($US2.5 billion) capable of lifting satellites and, eventually, people into orbit.

"My business model right now for Blue Origin is that I sell about $US1 billion a year of Amazon stock and I use it to invest in Blue Origin," he said.

"It's very important that Blue Origin stand on its own feet and be a profitable, sustainable enterprise. That's how real progress gets made."

The lobby of space venture Blue Origin features a replica of the Earth, Tuesday, March 8, 2016, in Kent, Wash. The private space company opened its doors to the media for the first time on Tuesday to give a glimpse of how organizations like Blue Origin are creating the next generation of rockets for private and public use.
The lobby of space venture Blue Origin features a replica of the Earth, Tuesday, March 8, 2016, in Kent, Wash. The private space company opened its doors to the media for the first time on Tuesday to give a glimpse of how organizations like Blue Origin are creating the next generation of rockets for private and public use. AP Photo - Donna Blankinship

Of course, as ambitious as his plans are, Mr Bezos is hardly the only cashed up businessman who is trying to bring space travel to the masses - and make a tidy profit in the process.

These days, if you're an adventurous billionaire tycoon worth your salt, you're likely trying to play out some childlike sci-fi fantasy about colonising the stars.

While the Amazon founder spruiks the immense potential of reusable rockets, fellow billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk receives praise for relaunching a reusable rocket for the first time ever last week - a breakthrough 15 years in the making for him and his team. It's a development that Mr Musk believes could make space travel 100 times cheaper.

The founder of Tesla and SpaceX is arguably the most visible figure when it comes to commercial space travel and his goals far surpass mere space tourism.

In September he outlined his plan to put humans on Mars as early as 2025 with the ultimate goal of building a colony on the Red Planet.

"That anyone can go if they wanted to, that's the really the important thing," Mr Musk told an eager audience last year.

"Are you prepared to die? If that's OK, then you're a candidate for going."

With the glory of America's Apollo missions a feint memory, Mr Musk has largely become the poster boy of pioneering space travel. But due to the immense media attention he receives and the exceedingly ambitious nature of his plans, many are sceptical of the validity of his goals, let alone the time frame he is chasing.

One of those sceptics is world renowned astrophysicist Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson.

"I'm probably Elon Musk's biggest critic. Or more accurately put, I'm the biggest critic of the people who think they know what it is he's doing," he told news.com.au last week.

Much of the work done by SpaceX is in conjunction with NASA and given the insane expenses involved in a potential mission to Mars, Dr Tyson said it is just not possible for a private company. Ultimately, it is something that will have to be achieved by government.

"In spite of this scepticism, I will not stand in his way. Because somebody's gotta be thinking the way he does. And I'm glad he's out there doing it. Somebody's gotta be moving the needle and he's moving the needle," Dr Tyson said.

"Without people like that nobody goes anywhere."

Mr Bezos is also competing with another eccentric billionaire who is looking to commercialise the final frontier for wealthy joyriders - Virgin founder Richard Branson.

The UK billionaire's project to make space the new playground for the rich has already attracted some 500 potential customers who have spent $332,000 ($US250,000) on reserving their spot on one of its future trips.

Similar to Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic plans to take astro-tourists for a ride to the edge of Earth's atmosphere.

The company has suffered a number of setbacks which has taken the wind out of its sails but Mr Branson has remained positive. In an interview with the UK's Daily Telegraph this week, he said Virgin Galactic was aiming for its first space flight later this year.

"I think I'd be very disappointed if we're not into space with a test flight by the end of the year and I'm not into space myself next year and the program isn't well under way by the end of next year," he said.

News Corp Australia


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