A dream of space
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is spending a billion dollars each year on a project to bring thousands of people into space in the coming decades. Not just for a brief taste as a tourist, although that’s probably going to be his first offer, but to permanent settlements in earth orbit, on the Moon and, possibly, beyond. He wants to send tens of thousands and then millions of people into space. Bezos says his space colony project been a dream of his since his childhood; a project he’s sure he’ll be most proud of when he’s 80.
Good for him! Any of us mere mortals might also want to fulfill our youthful dreams were we as wealthy as Jeff Bezos. Still, Bezos is no mere dreamer; he gives every indication of being not only the canniest of businessmen, but also sane and methodical. Although he may be able to afford to spend billions on a dream, it seems unlikely he’d do so without a well-considered rationale — probably a commercial one. He is, after all, the apostle of the six-page narrative memo.1
Unfortunately, we don’t have the Memo on his space project. But we do have a couple of recent extended interviews on the occasion of his Axel Springer Award and at the International Space Development Conference where he received the Gerard K. O’Neill Memorial Award for Space Settlement Advocacy.
In each interview, Bezos describes his motives and his rationale for his space project in nearly identical terms. In brief, he’s convinced that the surface of the planet is too limited by a shortage of energy (mainly) to permit humanity to continue to meet its potential. Being restricted to the surface of the Earth will condemn us, as a species, to stasis.
But there is an alternative; in essence to revive the “High Frontier” project that Gerald O’Neill advocated in the 1970s to relocate first to orbital habitats, then to the planets. Bezos says the goal of his Blue Origin company is to start, and later to continue to contribute, to the acheivement of that goal by building the infrastructure for space-dwelling humanity.
OK. Exciting. But it sounds a little nuts. What sort of case is there for “species uplift”?
Bezos seeks scale
Bezos does not seem the sort of person that would take irrational risks with his own time and money.
Despite the unfortunate publicity surrounding his divorce, Jeff Bezos has a public personna that is more restrained than the pyrotechnic Elon Musk, for example. His annual shareholder letters — much briefer than Warren Buffet’s but equally thoughtful — suggest a profound understanding of enterprise and above all of scale. Scaling-up (gradatim) by initial steps has evidently been a crucial method for him. He revealed that it was the opportunity to scale his offers that led him to choose books for his (immediately successful) entry into Internet retail: ”I picked books because there were more items in the book category than in any other category.”
Scale, enabled mostly by the Internet architecture, has ever since been a constant in his Amazon business. It was not only the basis for his competitive edge over established retailers in the book business. It remains the “moat” around his most profitable enterprise, Amazon Web Services (AWS), the ground-breaking cloud-storage and cloud-computing platform that allows any customer (Amazon, the first) to scale business operations quickly — even instantly — as demand changes.
He has been so successful in the invention and delivery of businesses that the success-odds on any bet he makes on an enterprise must start to look shorter. But Bezos’ own explanation of his motives for his space adventure and the rationale he offers for it are, on the one hand, fables about his childhood and on the other, claims about future limits on growth that don’t seem very plausible.
Perhaps we could learn more about his reasoning if we had some of his “six-page narrative” memoranda to read; but, even if he’s composed one for his Blue Origin business, it isn’t likely he’ll share it with us. The best we can do is to examine what he’s said in interviews and informal talks.
He’s discussed the project in nearly identical terms at two recent public ceremonies where he received an award for his work on Amazon (the Axel Springer Award) and on Blue Origin (the Gerald K O’Neill Award). On both occasions he participated in an on-stage interview that roamed over biographical details and other views with little detail on his space project. But in both interviews Bezos makes it clear that his space venture is a life-long ambition and the project that intrigues him most at present2. In both interviews he also relates some biographical details of his interest in science-fiction since he was a teenager, his self-taught interest in the development of personal computation and code and — in one interview — the influence that Princeton physicist and space evangelist Gerald O’Neill had on him.
Space or stagnate — the rationale
Jeff Bezos, like his inspiration Gerald O’Neill, claims that for humanity to stay on the surface of the planet is to stagnate. “We have ever-improving lives in large part because we use ever-expanding amounts of energy…” Bezos claims. To go on expanding the amount of energy we use we will need “compound growth” in energy production and use.
But to achieve such compounding on the planet’s surface would mean covering the surface of the earth in solar cells. He points out that the average energy use by a person in a developed economy is 110-times the actual metabolic requirements of human beings. He asks: “Do we want that [compound growth] to continue, or do we want to freeze that in time? If we freeze it, by the way, there are millions of people who don’t get to enjoy the 11,000 watts that the people in this room enjoy.”
Bezos believes the planet’s surface is not big enough to support continued human expansion. “We have the resources to build room for a trillion humans in this solar system, and when we have a trillion humans, we’ll have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts. It will be a way more interesting place to live.”
He argues that space will be the preferred location of future industrial production. “The Earth is not a very good place to do heavy industry. It’s convenient for us right now, but in the not-too-distant future, I’m talking decades, maybe 100 years, it’ll start to be easier to do a lot of the things that we currently do on Earth in space, because we’ll have so much energy. And then we can send the vitamins down to Earth… That’s going to be the Great Inversion. The beginning is, we’ll get bulk materials in space and we’ll have to send all the vitamins up, integrated circuits and things like that. We’ll have to send all of those up into space, but eventually that will invert, and we will send the vitamins down to Earth.”
He sees his own role as helping to build the infrastructure for access to space, including habitats. Once the infrastructure is there, other entrepreneurs, even competitors will build on it. “Two kids in a dorm room today cannot do that [build a major business] as space entrepreneurs. You cannot make a giant space company in your dorm room. Not today. And the reason is that the heavy lifting infrastructure isn’t in place… That’s what it is right now to be a space entrepreneur. You get millions of dollars, not billions of dollars, but the things you want to do currently would cost billions of dollars… We have to change that and make it more like the last 20 years of the internet, where you saw unbelievable dynamism. And then, when we have that entrepreneurial dynamism in space, you will see this vision that I painted, which is really the Gerry O’Neill vision that I was deeply influenced by. That vision will happen so fast once we have that dynamism.”
If Bezos builds the infrastructure, will they come?
What lends a special credibility to this vision of the benefits of space infrastructure is that Bezos’ company has done just this for the internet.
Bezos’ company built the infrastructure of the Amazon cloud for its own use as a distributed data storage and cloud-processing platform and sold it, very profitably, as a service to millions of other businesses. Bezos has top form in the creation of dynamic business infrastructure and, although Amazon now has several competitors in this industry, its own revenues continue to grow rapidly.
If you build it, will they come? They have, in the case of several successful Amazon ventures. But what is the profit opportunity in space? If Bezos were right about the energy squeeze we might expect that to be a fairly clear incentive. Is he right?
Since Bezos makes his case for building the “High Frontier infrastructure” mostly by reference to future energy needs, that’s were an evaluation has to start.
The business-case that we’ve been offered asserts we will face a malthusian energy problem; where our demand grows at a compound rate (like e.g. rabbits reproducing) but our capacity to produce grows only incrementally or is capped so that we run up against planet-wide stagnation.
This case sounds plausible given that energy use really does grow rapidly as nations grow richer. It’s also undisputed that some 80 percent of energy we use today relies on finite energy endowments — especially fossil sources — that must be exhausted at any price eventually and that many people want to see phased out for other reasons.
Still, I’m going to argue that the evidence of history and of global economic, scientific and demographic trends does not require us to believe that we’ll ever hit some sort of ‘energy ceiling’ that will limit growth here on the planet’s surface.
To be clear, there’s no certainty about energy forecasting except that it’s fragile and typically wrong by overshooting demand. As Vaclav Smil says3: “Energy forecasts are not worth even the cost of the cheapest acid paper on which they get printed: even that poor paper will get embrittled only after decades, while most energy forecasts are obsolete in a matter of years, sometimes in just a few months” (I’ll return to this point, below).
So I am not arguing that Bezos is certainly wrong; that would be just another fragile forecast. I am saying that Bezos’ case on energy requirements is not so strong that it justifies the extraordinary “solution” he proposes. If we we wanted to hedge against the possibility that we might face stagnation due to future energy shortages, we should pick some much more modest (and less risky) investment than Jeff Bezos is making because the risk of energy constraints on future growth is probably much smaller than he claims.
As Bezos indicates, population size and a rising standard of living are the key determinants of energy demand. Considering the world as a whole, both of these indices are expected to stabilize during this century. Population growth is likely to top-out at about 10–11 billion people. Economic growth does not look like it will stop but the rate of growth in the second half of this century is not presently expected to be as high as the dramatic rates of growth seen in the second half of the 20th century.
This slowing pace of change makes it easier to project future energy demand from historical patterns and predicted improvements in energy efﬁciency. There may not be much precision about the projections — like all such, they tend to be illustrations of the degree of our ignorance — but a slower pace of change means more confidence that the near future will be like the recent past.
The historical evidence — at least over the past century — shows that as countries grow richer their per capita energy use rises rapidly at first and then levels-off. As an engineer would say: the growth curve is sigmoidal or “s‑shaped”. The growth trend flattens as countries become rich.
The Shell Global Energy Model summary shows energy use per capita in rich and emering economies after 1960, plotted against per capita wealth in “PPP dollars” (an imaginary currency used by international institutions to make fair comparisons).
Why the slow down? One reason is continuing improvements in energy efficiency of production; this is a form of technological progress which takes place in wealthier countries first, but is eventually adopted everywhere as the cost of the technical improvements falls. Also, economies with higher GDP per capita levels tend to have a greater proportion of their production — as measured by the value of output — in service and knowledge-intensive industries rather than in manufacturing, mining and transportation industries that are the biggest energy users: an evolution sometimes called ‘dematerialization’. Another way of saying this is that energy productivity is rising. We’re getting more goods and services — including information processing — for every unit of energy input.
But industrial production still takes place. Does this ‘dematerialization’ mean only that the more energy-intensive industrial industries are pushed off-shore to poorer countries? No. The trend to greater energy productivity is world-wide. It is evident in the energy productivity of both rich countries and poor countries: in fact, the fall in the energy-intensity of output is steeper in countries that are not part of the ‘rich-club’ ((the OECD member countries) as the graphs from the US Energy Information Administration’s 2017 annual report shows (red line in the third chart from left). As poorer countries “catch up” with the living standards of wealthier countries they are often able to jump to the technological frontier of production methods and technologies pioneered by the richer countries whose economies evolved earlier.
Population growth is already slowing
Population growth slows, too, as economies become wealthier. As family incomes rise women, especially, can access a better education and benefit from greater and more diverse economic opportunities. They are less likely to be home-bound. They are more likely to aspire to jobs and carreers. They marry later and tend to have fewer babies. Then, improvements in maternal education and better public health care has dramatically improved survival rates for infants everywhere in the last third of the 20th century, also leading to fewer pregnancies.
Although the number of people living in poor countries is still increasing quickly, the overall rate of world population growth peaked almost three generations ago at 2.2% (1962–3). It has fallen continuously since then to less than half of that rate (1.09%) in 2018. Current projections by the United Nations are for a world population of around 10–11 billion as a toward the end of this century (versus 7 billion today).
By then, the growth rate in number of infants born each year is likely to be zero or less. The global population growth curve will flatten. We’re not facing catastrophic population growth that will force the human race to colonise the Moon or planets or near-earth-orbit. We are facing, instead, another sigmoidal curve in population growth over time, further reducing the rate of global energy demand growth.
A simple estimate of future energy demand
The question we should be asking is: will everyone in future be able to access the amount of energy that people in high-income countries will be using in the future. If historical trends continue, even the current level that Bezos estimates at 11,000 watts per person is higher — perhaps much higher — than people will need in future.
We can make a simple estimate of future energy demand by asking how much power would be needed to allow people everywhere by the end of the century to use as much power as is used in North America today (where demand growth has started to level out). United Nations data show this is 89,144 kilowatt hours over the course of a year; a rate equal to or about 10KWh. Close to Jeff Bezos’ number of about 11KW instantaneous demand.
Eleven billion in 2100 people each accessing this amount means the world would need to produce 980 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy each year — about six times estimated global energy production in 2014. Alternately, if we set our goal to be supplying 11 billion people in 2100 with the same amount of power as is consumed in today’s high income countries as a group (about 6.3KWh instead of the 10KWh consumed by Americans) then we would need to increase energy production by a little less than 4 times today’s global energy production (to 608 TWh).
Sure, this is a big increase in energy supply. Is it feasible to produce so much energy, economically, on the surface of the earth? With improvements in “surface-based” energy technologies — including, possibly, the long-promised fusion reactors — and still huge reservoirs of fossil fuels to fall-back on, there’s no obvious reason why it could not happen. Eyeballing the global production data is it clear that total primary energy production has grown more than 12-fold since 1900 and 5 times since 1950.4
Jeff Bezos claims that we’d need to pave the planet’s surface with photo-voltaic cells to meet future demand. He meant that to sound like nonsense: and it is, but not only for the reasons Bezos intended. Long before that happened — barring global catastrophe or government intervention — the market will have put a sharply higher price on alternative sources of supply including greater energy efficiency and new energy sources including more efficient fission power, fusion power and improved solar energy including, possibly, space-based solar power. If the latter proves feasible, the market may start to reward Bezos (or his descendents) for years of heavy investment in orbital rockets at Blue Origin.
Already, all around us, we can see that energy efficiency is improving partly in response to higher energy prices and partly in response to demand for more compact devices (as computer chips become smaller they need to cut power use to control heat). We are using much less energy to power our computers and phones than just a few years ago. We are using less power in our automobiles, planes and public transport. Even the latest generation of orbital rockets, including Bezos’ “New Glen” rocket, use less energy (over their lifetimes) than earlier rockets because they are recyclable.
Finally, there is good reason to think that this four-to-sixfold increase in demand that we get from our simple estimate will prove an overestimate. As I noted above, many policy makers, ‘experts’ and high-profile businessmen (Thomas Eddison, for example) have made confident pronouncements over the decades about future power supply and demand that turned out to be dead wrong.
Energy economist Vaclav Smil showed, in a typically mordant survey published in 2000, that every noteable attempt in the two preceding decades to forecast US primary energy consumption in that year significantly overshot the mark (and overshot prices, too).
Illustration from Smil showing the overshoot of primary consumption estimates for the year 2000.5
A big bet on remote, unlikely, risks
This tendency to project dramatic dangers in economic growth was characteristic of resource, environmental and population projections around the time Gerald O’Neill came up with his High Frontier vision in the 1970’s and it remains common today. But the most alarming projections were never reliable.
There is no population “bomb” (Paul Erlich and the Sierra Club, 1968); water and air have not been permanently poisoned by industrial production (Rachel Carson, 1962); we have not come close to exhausting natural resources (‘Limits to Growth’, Club of Rome, 1972); although the globe has been re-warming slowly and variably for a couple of centuries there has been no sign of run-away over-heating as predicted by UN-IPCC computer modelling (1990 et seq).
Sometimes the problems did not exist or were mis-identified or were not as grave as assumed. Sometimes interest groups or government agencies exaggerated aspects of the findings in support of their own interests. But a common failings in all of these projections was naïve compounding of selected trends without taking account of offsetting adjustment mechanisms — such as prices that act to moderate the trend and prompt supply alternatives — or recognition of independent offsetting trends that also grow at compound rates; especially knowledge and technology.6
I believe Jeff Bezos’ rationale is too pessimistic on energy supply. Also, as a response to the possible supply threat, the High Frontier idea is wildly expensive and non-specific, if not mal-adapted. If space-based power generation is as valuable as Bezos believes, there is no reason to lift factories and cities into space to take advantage of it. Plans for robotic orbiting solar power stations are already somewhat advanced, although so-far stymied by technical challenges orders of magnitude less than those that would be faced by the Bezos plan.7
Good luck to him
Still, there is plenty of room for a private entrepreneur to make specific bets. Entrepreneurs win big rewards for taking big risks, when they’re right. I admire Jeff Bezos for having “skin in the game” by putting a billion dollars of his own money each year into his bet (although even that huge sum does not seem a significant risk to his overall wealth).
“The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it. Blue Origin is expensive enough to be able to use that fortune. I am currently liquidating about 1 billion dollars a year of Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin. And I plan to continue to do that for a long time. Because you’re right, you’re not going to spend it on a second dinner out. That’s not what we are talking about. I am very lucky that I feel like I have a mission-driven purpose with Blue Origin that is, I think, incredibly important for civilisation long-term. And I am going to use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.” (Jeff Bezos at the Axel Springer Awards)
Then, rationale aside, Bezos seems to be motivated in this project by a frontier spirit that is, of course, a mythic quality of American capitalism. Posing for Blue Origin publicity photos wearing his Texan boots as if he were leaning on a rail rather than on a space capsule is sort of a give-away.
Aside: Gerald O’Neill’s “High Frontier”
Jeff Bezos’ acknowledged inspiration for the objectives of his Blue Origin project is Gerald O’Neill, a Princeton and MIT-based physicist who made a significant contribution to the engineering necessary for exotic particle physics, a world-competitive glider pilot and a space-futurist in the mid-1970s when space futures seemed just about in reach.
O’Neill’s evocative “High Frontier” concept called for a massive public program to construct, by the turn of the 21st century, an earth-orbiting habitat for tens-of-thousands of people using materials mined from the Moon. The use of Moon materials — boosted inexpensively into orbit using mass-drivers — was, in O’Neill’s calculation, the gimmick that would keep the costs of the program within feasible bounds.
“Island One”, as described in O’Neill’s 1975 presentation to the Congressional Committee on Science and Technology, would be just the first “boot-strapping” step in a much larger program of expansion into space. The space habitats, he argued, would be industrial and agricultural centres, transcending planetary limits to growth, enabling greatly expanded consumption of “energy without guilt” and the microwave re-transmission of solar energy to the planet’s surface.
O’Neill’s idea has antecedents — although he curtly denied any influence — in science fiction from the 1920s and in a series of popular articles for Collier’s Magazine in the early 1950s by Werner Von Braun, illustrated by paintings that included wheeled space stations in earth orbit. Jeff Bezos was just 11 years old in 1975 and an avid reader of science fiction, by his account
The “High Frontier” gathered great popular interest in the mid-70s after it was advocated by Stewart Brand (\@stewartbrand), publisher of the iconic Whole Earth Catalog (and until recently a President of the LongNow Foundation). It also attracted interest from NASA that published papers from a 1975 conference at Stanford on the concept and commissioned some artwork of the O’Neill colonies that defined, for later decades, the visual language of human space exploration.
These visual ideas recur most famously in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but also in a myriad later magazine-covers, films and television series. The dénouement of Christoper Nolan’s Interstellar (2104), for example, takes place in an O’Neill habitat — a so-called “Stanford torus” called Cooper Station — whose computer-generated scenery directly echoes the NASA paintings from 1975.
Original or not, O’Neill’s ideas were adopted in a large number of science-fiction novels and stories by, among many others8: Arthur C Clarke, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Allen Steele. In the way of fiction, the ideas have been not so much tested as echoed, expanded, exalted, twisted, shattered, inverted, mocked and trashed. At least in the imagination, the “High Frontier” has been fecund, if not productive.
Today, aside from Bezos’ admiring references, O’Neill’s ideas and, especially, their associated space-manufacturing and space-power plans, retain adherents in the International Space Society and in background efforts by NASA and the Japan Space Agency to develop space-based solar power generation. But, at least in the latter case, the technical barriers remain substantial and the costs of (especially) demonstration-scale operations make them seem economically infeasible energy sources. It appears that aside from Jeff Bezos’ investments, there is no existing commercial or public program avowedly aimed at building the O’Neill “bootstrap”.
What happened to the “High Frontier”? It lost momentum when the eco-disaster concerns of the time (population explosion, resource exhaustion and chemo-biological disaster) fostered by the Club of Rome and the new UN environmental agency UNEP proved mostly unfounded.
Then, competing budget and social priorities in the United States, and an uncertain rationale for manned-space-flight and the technological frontier that the moon-landings pressed against, pushed back.
- In his 2017 letter to shareholders, Bezos revealed that company execs “don’t do PowerPoint” or any other slide-oriented presentations. Instead, they create six-page narrative memos that are read at the beginning of each meeting—like a “study hall” session, he says.
- Although he’s had other enthusiasms in the past, including sponsorship of the Long Now Foundation’s 10,000 year clock under construction in a mountain top he owns in south Texas.
- ”Energy at the Crossroads” Background notes for a presentation at the Global Science Forum Conference on Scientific Challenges for Energy Research (OECD), Paris, May 17–18, 2006
- There are no WDI numbers for 1900, so I’ve used data from Max Roser’s Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/energy-production-and-changing-energy-sources) to make the historical estimates.
- V. Smil, Perils of long-range energy forecasting: reﬂections on looking far ahead, Technological Forecasting and Social Change 65 (2000) 251–264
- : These faults with naïve projections were outlined by Karl Kaysen, one of President Kennedy’s economic advisors, in a sharp and entertaining essay in Foreign Policy in July 1972, criticising to the Club of Rome report: TheComputer that Printed Out W\*O\*L\*F\*
- See the description of the Japan Space Agency’s solar power station plans: It’s AlwAys sunny In spAce — IEEE Xplore
- For a literary history of the “High Frontier” see Stephen Baxter’s review article: “Dreams and Nightmares of the High Frontier” at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305520478_Dreams_and_Nightmares_of_the_High_Frontier_The_Response_of_Science_Fiction_to_Gerard_K_O%27Neill%27s_The_High_Frontier