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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

What Bezos' Big Day Means for Commercial Spaceflight

This week, Jeff Bezos flew to space. Or at least high enough into the sky for it to technically count. While his 10-minute joyride in a Blue Origin rocket was mainly intended to draw attention to his space tourism company, the former Amazon CEO also has bigger ambitions. He wants to launch a new era of space colonization, with the ultimate goal of creating a new home for humans in the cosmos.

Sure, being the world's richest person and former head of one of the planet’s biggest retail companies means he has directly contributed to some of society's biggest problems. But Bezos seems to believe that in order to save Earth, we have to leave it.

This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED editor-at-large Steven Levy joins us to talk about Jeff Bezos’ big day and what it means for the future of humanity.

Show Notes

Read Steven’s dispatches on Bezos’ rocket launch. Also check out his cover story about how Bezos wants to leave Earth for good. Also, Richard Branson went up into space too, you know.


Steven recommends the book Wally Funk's Race for Space. Lauren recommends the show Hacks on HBO Max. Mike recommends the Mighty Vibe audio player.

Steven Levy can be found on Twitter @StevenLevy. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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Michael Calore: Lauren.

Lauren Goode: Mike.

MC: Lauren, how much would you pay to go into space?

LG: I would pay $119 per year, that's it. I'd pay the exact amount that Amazon Prime costs because according to Jeff Bezos my purchases help send him to space and so he can subsidize my trip to space.

MC: I don't think that's going to fly, pardon the pun.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]

MC: Hi everyone, welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore a senior editor here at WIRED.

LG: And I'm Lauren Goode, I'm a senior writer at WIRED.

MC: And we are also joined by WIRED editor at large Steven Levy. Hello Steven, welcome back to the show.

Steven Levy: Hello Michael and Lauren, and I'm always delighted to be on the show.

MC: And we're delighted to have you of course because today we are talking about space and Jeff Bezos. As you probably heard, the former Amazon CEO and richest person in the world flew into space this week. His Blue Origin rocket carried him and his three besties out of the atmosphere where they floated around for a few minutes before safely landing back on earth. The event wasn't just about Bezos, also aboard the rocket where the oldest and youngest people ever to go into space, 82 year old former pilot Wally Funk, and an 18 year old paying customer whose seat on the rocket cost many, many millions of dollars. The Blue Origin flight this week and the Virgin Galactic flight last week were significant steps for the commercial space industry. And Steven you've been following Bezos's astronautical ambitions for years and you were in Texas this week to see the Blue Origin launch. There are four delightful stories about the event written by you on WIRED right now that people can read. So let's start with the big question, why does Jeff Bezos want to go into space so badly? What's in it for him?

LG: Pardon me, I think you mean Jeff Spacezos.

SL: Well, it's interesting, there's actually two answers to that question. One is, yeah actually, but two parts of the question that implied, one is, why is he spending money to have a space company? And the second is, why does he want to go to space? The company is because he's got this grand vision that human beings are by and large going to live in space colonies not on planet earth. And this is something that he became enamored of by reading the works of Gerard O'Neill who was a futurist who postulated this. And Jeff as a high school student gave his valedictory speech at graduation about this and has been passionate about this, pursuing it ever since.

So that's the grand goal and everything that Blue Origin does is going to step-by-step ferociously, which is its motto, move that plan closer into being. Now why he wants to go into space is because he's a space nerd, he just wants the adventure of it and he built his own company to take him into space. And he actually skipped a couple of steps in this step-by-step process by moving up his chance to go to space, they never tested human flight before this. They did 15 test flights without humans and he wanted to be on board the very first one and take his bestie, his brother, with him along with the oldest and youngest people. So it was kind of a spectacle which broke character for Blue Origin which had been trying to do things very, very deliberately before then.

MC: Let's quickly talk about the four passengers on the flight. I think we have to start with Wally Funk.

SL: Yeah, she's unbelievable. 82 years old and she was part of the Mercury 13, which in 1960 someone got funding to train a group of 13 women in the same way that the astronauts of the Mercury Seven, who would go into space, they were officially NASA astronauts that they would be tested and trained. And Wally, her name is Mary Wallace Funk, everyone calls her Wally, did the test so well she beat the standards of almost all of the Mercury Seven astronauts. But NASA denied Mercury 13, they actually had a congressional hearing and Scott Carpenter and John Glenn, the astronauts, testified that this isn't the place for women's space, you really can't have women there, they're places to support astronauts not to be astronauts. And NASA rejected the whole idea of women in space for many years and by the time they did accept women they had all these requirements that Wally didn't qualify for like an engineering degree or a military experience.

So even though she was a trained pilot and trained other pilots and passed all the tests, she never got to fly in space. She became obsessed with it and she signed up in 2010 for Richard Branson's program which for $200,000 could give her a seat in the Virgin Galactic spaceship. Jeff Bezos in a very canny move knew all this and plucked her out of the waiting list for Richard Branson and put her to the top of the list for Blue Origin and 82 year old Wally was on board raring to go, she's unbelievable, she's a real spark plug and her only complaint was, well, there's not enough room, I couldn't see the whole earth and get me back up there again.

LG: You could almost say that she got the prime delivery treatment, right? Expedited shipping.

SL: I've been very careful not to make Amazon puns in my stories.

LG: Very good. And Steven, did you have the opportunity to talk to Wally when you were in Van Horn?

SL: No. They were very savvy, they only gave interviews to broadcast folks. And Wally herself, they were a little nervous about her because she's a little unpredictable so her only interviews were in the group of four where exposure will be limited.

LG: Well, I am super happy for Mary Wallace Funk, AKA, Wally. Let's talk about the other folks who were in the rocket with Jeff Bezos. There was also Oliver Daemen who's the youngest person to ever go into space and then Mark Bezos, Jeff Bezos's brother, how did they end up on the short list?

SL: Well, Mark Bezos, I think had a family connection.

LG: OK. A little bit of nepotism there.

SL: Yeah. Jeff describes him as my best friend. I know Mark a little, sometimes we hang out at TAB, super nice guy and Jeff Bezos's brother so that was his ticket on there. There was an interesting little controversy that particularly the veteran space reporters are pretty upset about, everyone thought that Mark Bezos is 53 years old and that's what I reported in my story, but someone had some document that said he might not be 53, it might be 50 or something, and Blue Origin wouldn't confirm his age. So the space reporters who their whole life is getting every detail right, they think the scribes of history so they were pretty upset that Blue Origin wouldn't confirm that. And I actually asked Blue Origin and they said, well you have to go to the public documents on that, so I don't know whether they meant we have to dig up his birth certificate or what all that was about.

But Mark was called by Jeff as the funniest person in space because he made a couple jokes or something and Jeff I guess knows him as the family wit and the veteran space reporters again, contested that and they cited a couple astronauts they knew who were funny. There was actually a podcast called 2 Funny Astronauts so that was their prove, so they didn't think that Mark was funny. And we told the funny story about going down in five Gs, which is the time that they'd made the sound check, they asked him if he was all right and he could hardly get the words out because he was at his maximum Gs at that moment in the flight.

LG: OK. So we have the marginally funny Mark Bezos-

SL: No he's a funny guy but not the funniest person in space.

LG: OK. Then tell us about Oliver.

SL: And Oliver Daemen, 18 years old, he's in his gap year between high school and the University of Utrecht-

MC: I'm sorry I keep laughing.

SL: … and he said that he would have a pretty good subject-

LG: Wait, you didn't do this through your gap year Mike?

MC: No.


SL: … he had a great subject to write in freshman composition about what I did during my summer vacation. And though I actually felt that in terms of inspiration, you think an 18 year old this is great, it did not cross the Karman line of inspiration because his dad who started a hedge fund bought the seat in the auction or was it one of the high under bidders in the auction. Now this is weird that the high bidder in the auction spent $28 million and then bowed out because of a quote scheduling conflicts. So most of us would check the schedule, check the calendar before we bid $28 million to go for a seat somewhere, right? I think there's a backstory there we haven't heard. So they went through the list of the under bidders who spent millions of dollars but less than 28 and picked Oliver, probably because the bookend Wally, so we have the youngest and the oldest. And he seemed like a nice young guy and he was obviously thrilled to be on space and he said it's been his lifelong ambition though his life was nowhere near as long as Wally Funk's.

LG: Right. Yes, since the early 2000s.

MC: So Steven, there was some dispute about whether or not these four quote-unquote astronauts actually went into space this week, could you tell us about that.

SL: Yeah. There's a big controversy about whether a suborbital flight even qualifies people to say I've been into space and there's sort of a dispute about how you can even say I've been to space. Well the height you have to attain is, the FAA says that it's 50 miles, 50 go up 50 miles and you qualify as being in space and that's how high the Virgin Galactic spaceship went. Now the Blue Origin takes you up just past what's called the Karman line which is a 100 kilometers or 62 miles. And they say that the Virgin so-called astronauts, they aren't really in space, they're in space with an asterisk because they don't cross the Karman line. I think it was kind of funny because, and of course looking up stuff about all this, Alan Shepard who went to space 60 years ago on the first American space flight, it was a suborbital flight, he went 116 miles, right? So neither of these folks attained what was done 60 years ago so I find it odd that they're arguing about it.

LG: Steven, we're getting the note from our producer that we're getting close to 10 minutes for this segment but that actually brings me to my next question which is-

SL: That's long enough to go into space. We could be there and back.

LG: Exactly. We could be there and back already. Why was this flight only 10 minutes? Tell us about like, is that the standard amount of time for these kinds of flights?

SL: Well, it's a suborbital flight, right? So there's two kinds of space flights generally, there's the suborbital flight kind of like one of those air rockets that you pump a lot of water into and then let go, it's like a big version of that. It goes up and it goes down and you're up on the space for four minutes, I called it the Quibi of space travel. And it's great if you're a rich person and you don't want to take up too much time off, you go straight up and straight down. And it's actually much, much easier to do that suborbital joint than an orbit because it doesn't have to go four times as fast to break the Earth's atmosphere and get up there on a course to go into orbit which means you need 16 times more energy because of some equation in math, Jeff Bezos is going to explain it to you. So it's a much bigger investment and a much bigger rocket to get up there and Blue Origin is starting with these little suborbital flights.

MC: All right, well, we're going to take a break and then when we come back we'll talk a little bit more about the billionaire space race.

LG: With an emphasis on the billionaire part.

MC: Capital B.


MC: We've talked a lot about Jeff Bezos so far in the show but he's not the only billionaire trying to jumpstart his own private space tourism company. A couple of weeks ago Virgin CEO, Richard Branson, beat Bezos into space aboard his own Virgin Galactic rocket and SpaceX Elon Musk's astro endeavor has been sending flights to the international space station for years though Musk himself hasn't climbed aboard a rocket yet, what are you afraid of Elon? Now Steven, where does Blue Origin sit in context with the other commercial space flight companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and the others?

SL: Well, the immediate competition for space tourists is between Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. So both of them now are competing to get very rich people to put up a lot of money to go into space and people question how big a market that is. There's a limited number of super rich people and probably even a more limited number of people who want to spend a lot of money to go up into space for a couple of minutes and there's a risk of that. Branson started his company by licensing the technology that was developed by another billionaire, Paul Allen, along with an aircraft designer, Burt Rutan, a legendary designer, and Allen got out of the space touring business because he felt that sooner or later someone is going to die and he didn't want to be owning the company when that happened. So he sold his assets to Branson who figured, well, I could make it so maybe people won't die, though will see if that happens, I hope he's right.

And Branson jumped at the chance to go into space even sooner that he planned the minute that he heard Bezos was planning to go up on July 20th which is the anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. So I think Bezos might not have been happy about that, everyone is saying congratulations to each other but they are competitors. In the long run though Blue Origin really competes with SpaceX. Blue Origin is already building future generations of rockets, there's one called New Glenn to go into orbit and there was another rocket New Armstrong which is going to propel people to the moon and beyond, to infinity and beyond maybe. So the real competition I think is between Bezos and Musk and Musk I think maybe we'll wait till he goes to Mars which is his dream.

LG: Steven, why should we really care about all these rich men and their rockets and their private space endeavors? I mean, the trip that we saw this week, that you saw from Van Horn, Texas didn't really break new ground, it did symbolically in having Wally and Oliver on board, but just in terms of the distance traveled in the actual trip itself. So why should the public care?

SL: Well, for one thing these private space companies are really the pillars now of the whole space endeavor. One thing which Blue Origin and SpaceX do that no government space program has done is make this reliable set of rockets that not only take off but they come back to earth and can land safely. And reusable rockets are the future of space travel, they're much cheaper and they're going to make for routine space travel which is going to be the launch pad, if you will, of new kinds of things in space, new kinds of satellites, and maybe manufacturing in space and other things like that. So I think that's significant, it's a moment where besides space tourism we're going to see more routine flights and practice to take us to the next level, so to speak, in space.

LG: But I mean in some ways, Jeff Bezos is really creating this image here of himself as the ultimate villain, either that or having some kind of mega midlife crisis between putting giant balls in downtown Seattle and flying a phallic rocket into space.

MC: Don't forget about the cowboy hat.

LG: And we can't forget about the cowboy hat. I mean, Amazon the company that he founded and for a long time ran until recently is a capitalism machine, right? And everything that it does between running distribution centers and all of the shipping that it does and the way that it's actually created this new category of ultra fast shipping to consumers has created an enormous carbon footprint. And so a lot of people have interpreted this flight as a stunt effectively and said, well sure, that's nice, that's nice that you have the money and the power to just leave earth or explore a life beyond earth but what have you done to the earth here? What have you done to the environment here? And ensure Bezos has made a commitment and in fact I think on the heels of the flight he made a commitment to invest even more money into environmental causes but is that enough?

SL: It's interesting you say, what have they done to the earth? I think of Jim Morrison in When The Music's Over, who said those exact words the year we landed on the moon so kudos to that Lauren. I think that this summer the whole narrative of space has been kind of a tone deaf move by Branson and Bezos, particularly with Bezos who, as I said before, he has these longer term visions and he wants to build the space industry but maybe gloated by Branson. It's all about this idea of we should be inspired because a billionaire went to space and heard the billionaire talk about how awesome it was and how amazing it was and how it changed him and he looked down on earth and realized how fragile it was. I think we're in big trouble if we have to go into outer space to realize how fragile the earth is so I really didn't embrace that point. And even Bezos admitted that people are right when they say, why are these billionaires going into space? It's tone deaf and he said, yeah you're right but I'm going anyway.

LG: I could go on, let's just say, Jeff Bezos already has one Lauren in his life who cares a great deal about these endeavors, he certainly doesn't need another.

SL: Yeah. And he gave her a little gift. There's this weird moment in the press conference where they were announcing all this stuff they took up into space. And I think this is bizarre, I mean, I don't know why things are more valuable because they've been in space. One thing they brought up was a piece of canvas from the Wright brothers flight that they got from the wing of the Wright brothers flight and they took it up to space and then brought it down and it's supposed to be more valuable, that seems weird to me, it's pretty valuable on its own and adding your own little mark to it was seen to be making it less valuable, it's like getting the current Pope to autograph a Gutenberg Bible, right?

So then he said I bought this up and he said, "Lauren," he's pointing to his girlfriend, "I want you to come up and I want Jacky my mom to come up with her." And I thought for a minute he was going to propose to her right there in the press conference but no, he gave her a nice little necklace with the Blue Origin logo on it that he brought up to space, hey, thanks Jeff.

MC: Something else that we should talk about that happened during that post-flight press conference is they earned their wings, didn't they?

SL: Yeah. So the designation of commercial astronaut has been, until the day of this flight, if you went more than 50 miles up into space the FAA would consider you a commercial astronaut, you'd be an official astronaut and you would earn your wings. So they had a very elaborate separate ceremony, the first thing that happened is they prepare this custom pin with an A on it and a little thing signifying the road to space and the Blue Origin logo and blue sapphire to indicate that you were still an inhabitant of earth, right? In case you forgot, in four minutes you all kind of changed allegiance and had a different passport. And they pinned them on each of the astronauts who had these jumpsuits, looked like they were about to wash a window, and there were almost tears given, it's so significant.

But at the moment that they were giving the pins the FAA issued an order saying, wait a minute, we can't have this, it's like saying if you're on a cruise ship as a passenger you're like a sailor, right? I mean, so everyone who goes into space can't be called an astronaut, you're only an astronaut in the commercial sense if you're flying the spaceship or you're involved in some sort of capacity to advance the mission and you've trained a whole lot, not the 14 hours that they give a Blue Origin passenger. So when they were pinning the wings on there literally the ink wasn't dry on this order which said, this is BS, this was like the wings that you pin on someone or you give a little kid on the United flight to say, hey, you're the captain of the flight. Officially I asked Blue Origin about that and they said, well, officially they're astronauts as far as we're concerned.

MC: That's some serious shade from the FAA.

LG: Steven, before we take another break, if you could name one other thing that Jeff Bezos could be doing with his billions, his current net worth is over $200 billion, to help save humanity or move us forward, what would it be if it wasn't space travel?

SL: Is that a loaded question.

LG: I'm just curious to hear what your answer might be.

SL: Well, obviously there's like a 100 billion things he could do, right? I mean, this world is hurting. But when I asked them about this three years ago and I should say, three years ago I did this huge feature about Jeff, I spent hours with him, he gave me a tour of the base, a tour of the factory, we went up to the mountain and looked at the 10,000-Year Clock, I went to his ranch and I asked him that very thing and he said, "Look, the way I can impact the world is to do maybe what someone else isn't doing and no one with my resources can do this thing that I consider the most important thing for humanity which is to save civilization by helping us do the infrastructure that one day we're going to have a trillion humans living in these space colonies and earth could be almost a nature preserve, people would come down and visit it."

And I wrote in one of my stories this week that if he gets his way, instead of people saving their money for a ticket to go to space, these space colonies will be saving their money to visit this magical place called earth.

LG: I mean, it already is pretty magical but we need to treat it better.

MC: We really do.

SL: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's getting less magical when it's on fire. And you could say, well, Jeff should devote his money to climate change, he's doing $10 billion on climate change, right? Which it's not nothing but it's not the whole ball of wax, it's not like his ex-wife who's furiously giving her money away. But I have to say in his mind he's doing the most he can for humanity, he says it's the most important thing he'll ever do.

MC: Well, if you were going to invoke Jim Morrison earlier then I feel compelled to invoke another poet by the name of Gil Scott-Heron: "I can't pay my doctor bill but whitey's on the moon, 10 years from now I'll pay it still but whitey's on the moon."

SL: I can't argue with that. Whitey was a 100 percent of the crew of New Shepard.

MC: That's right. All right. Well, let's take a quick break and when we come back we'll do our recommendations.


MC: All right, welcome back. This is the part of the show where we all make recommendations for things that our listeners might enjoy. Steven, you are our guest, you go first, what's your recommendation?

SL: Well, keeping with the theme I want to recommend a book it's called Wally Funk's Race for Space.

MC: Nice.

SL: Written by a BBC journalist named Sue Nelson and she followed around Wally Funk for a few years and you really get a sense of how being denied a place as an astronaut in the early 1960s put a hole in this woman's life. And all her life she wanted to get up there which is why it was so great to see her finally breaking the Karman line or whatever and being weightless. And you go up there and it's kind of like a bounce house, they're all floating around and they threw Skittles at each other trying to catch it in their mouths. And she was complaining I guess a little that there wasn't enough room to do all the somersaults she wanted to do so she wants to go up again and yeah, but it was fantastic to see her finally accomplish her lifelong dream and it's been a hell of a life for her.

MC: Awesome.

LG: That's awesome.

MC: Lauren, what's your recommendation?

LG: My recommendation is a show on HBO Max called Hacks, that's not H-A-X like HBO Max, that's H-A-C-K-S. It premiered in May so all 10 episodes are already available and yes, I binge watch it. It's about a legendary stand-up comedian named Deborah Vance, she has just learned that her longstanding Vegas show is being cut back and likely coming to an end and then her manager ends up connecting her with a much younger sarcastic writer from LA who has had a hard time getting work because she made an offensive joke on Twitter and she's been canceled by her colleagues. And so she doesn't really want to work with Debra Vance, she considers her kind of washed up, Debra Vance doesn't want to work with her but they end up insulting each other so much that they develop this strange respect for each other and so they decided to work together and hilarity ensues and honestly it's laugh out loud funny. I recommend you check it out and if anyone needs my HBO login let me know because HBO Max is expensive and I give it out very freely to people. So yes.

SL: Lauren, I want to second that recommendation. It's been a hell of a year for Jean Smart who is the lead in Hacks. She also was in Mare of Easttown. You know, Delco, outside of Philadelphia, and her performance is unbelievable.

LG: Yeah, she is chef's kiss, very good. Mike, what's your recommendation?

MC: I'm going to recommend a gadget and it's not a new gadget, it's kind of an old gadget it's been around for, I guess, about four years. I'm holding it in my hand, it is called the Mighty Vibe. It's an audio player, it's about the size of an iPod Shuffle-

LG: It looks like an iPod.

MC: A square iPod Shuffle. It's an iPod Shuffle for Spotify basically. You pair it with an app on your phone and you sync it to your Spotify account and then you download your Spotify playlists onto this thing and then you clip it to your shirt and then you either use Bluetooth headphones or old school plug-in headphones and you can listen your music wherever you go. So it's like an iPod Shuffle but it basically syncs to Spotify. It's something that I've wanted for a really long time and it came out and I never got one. There was one kicking around here at the office and now that we're back in the office a couple of days a week, I found it and I was like, oh, I should try this out. It's especially cool if you are a runner or if you do a lot of hikes and stuff and you like to do that to get away from the internet and go off grid because it's an offline device.

It doesn't connect to Spotify unless you're in your home with your phone paired to the device and you're on Wi-Fi and then it syncs all the music and then you can take it offline. So when I go on runs I clip this to my running shorts and then I have music and I don't need to bring my phone with me when I go out. So it's $110, which is a lot, and also I should warn you that it is buggy. So it takes a little bit of time to get it to work properly, it may not connect to both of your headphones, you may have to try a couple of different pairs of headphones to get it to work but once you get it working, it's just set it and forget it and you can just clip it and press the button and go so that's my recommendation, the Mighty Vibe.

LG: I'm looking at it right now. Can I see it? It's super cute.

SL: If you end your Spotify subscription, does it still work?

MC: I think it does. I think if you just delete the app and then all of the music stays on the device and you never sync it again it'll just continue to play all the files.

LG: You know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of, I don't know if you remember that Pebble, I think just shortly before it was acquired, developed something called the Core that I wrote about.

SL: Yeah, I know, I wrote about that.

LG: I went to their offices in New York City. And it was built for runners, it was a GPS accessory for runners. And it was I think a little bit larger maybe, but similar.

MC: Yeah. So yeah, the iPod Shuffle still around even though they're just different now. All right. That is our show for this week, everybody should go read Steven's dispatches from the Blue Origin launch in Van Horn, Texas. You can find those on WIRED.com. Steven, thank you for coming back on the show.

SL: Oh, I really loved it.

MC: And thank you all for listening. If you have feedback you can find all of us on Twitter, just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Goodbye, we'll be back next week.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music plays]

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