Bezos in Space

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.

OutputContinuesToRise

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).

EnergyConsumptionForecasts

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.

HighFrontier

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.

ONeill

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”.

BootStrapSpaceColony

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.

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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. ”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
  4. 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.
  5. V. Smil, Per­ils of long-range ener­gy fore­cast­ing: reflec­tions on look­ing far ahead, Tech­no­log­i­cal Fore­cast­ing and Social Change 65 (2000) 251–264
  6. : 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\*
  7. See the descrip­tion of the Japan Space Agency’s solar pow­er sta­tion plans: It’s AlwAys sun­ny In spAce — IEEE Xplore
  8. 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

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