The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos
Christian Davenport

Ended: Sept. 4, 2018

In the history of the galaxy, the human race has been around for a tiny fraction of time, a mere blink. Life and the rare gift of consciousness did not come with a guarantee that it would continue forever. Asteroids are nature’s way of saying, “How’s that space program going?” as astronomers like to say.
“Most of us struggle with fear,” Sarsfield said. “We fret about this and that and generally dread looking dumb. I found Elon fearless in this regard. He’s not afraid to ask a question that proves he doesn’t understand something.…
says if people are going to get offended by you fighting for the right thing, then they are going to get offended.”
The company’s motto was “Gradatim Ferociter” (step by step, ferociously). The phrase appeared across the bottom of the coat of arms.
The turtle was Blue Origin’s mascot, the embodiment of another of Bezos’s favorite sayings, one derived from US Navy SEAL training: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” It was the opposite of SpaceX’s “Head down. Plow through the line.”
“SpaceX had what Elon called a high signal-to-noise ratio, meaning that people who added value were engineers. They were signal,” said Tim Hughes, the company’s general counsel. “And people who were nonengineers for the most part were noise.”
lured by Musk’s smarts and passion and the whole wild vibe of the company, which included Musk’s edict allowing employees to get up and leave meetings they didn’t need to attend. No questions asked.
The company often warned job applicants that their interview with Musk could be short and awkward because he might be multitasking through it, or take long pauses to think during which he said nothing for minutes on end. Mosdell found Musk a touch awkward and abrupt, but smart.
“If someone says design a reentry capsule, and you give it to NASA or someone else, they are going to spend, like, a year designing its shape,” said Steve Davis, SpaceX’s director of advanced projects. “For us it was, the bottom is the diameter of the Falcon 9. Because it was on the Falcon 9. The top is the diameter of the [port where it would dock with the space station]. The design is now complete. That was it. Connect two lines.”
Unfortunately, the industry is frankly, I think, hampered—I’ve been doing this for thirty years, so I think I can say that—by cost-plus contracts. The incentive on a cost-plus contract is not to minimize cost, it’s to maximize effort. Our philosophy was not minimize effort, but optimize effort.”
During a visit to Washington, DC, while sitting in the back of a sedan after a speech, a pair of his advisors asked him what he wanted to do. Musk went quiet, closed his eyes, and put his head back. He stayed that way for two minutes, then three. A long time. He had several quirks, and his sudden retreat into his own mind was an eccentricity the people at SpaceX were used to. People coming in to interview with Musk were sometimes warned that when he goes silent, it was because he’s thinking and it’s best not to interrupt him. The advisors knew not to say a word. Six minutes passed. Then eight. An eternity. “I’d seen him go Zen before, but I’d never seen him go this Zen,” one of the advisors recalled. Then Musk opened his eyes. “File the lawsuit,” he said. He got out of the car and went to the next event.
But like all of the great dreams, as Superman actor Christopher Reeve said, it would first seem impossible, then improbable, and then inevitable. You just had to believe and see through the dense forest of disbelief to a point in the distance where doubt gave way to an improbable question: What if everything Musk was saying was true?
“You can see clearly for millions of light years in every direction. It gives you a sense of the scale of the universe. The minute you unstrap, you’re free. It opens up the possibilities for movement that you’ve just never, ever had here on Earth. It’s a shared experience with your crew, but it’s also profoundly personal. So, you really feel a part of the unfathomable depths of the cosmos.” And a connection to Earth. At least that’s what the astronauts always said—that they went to space only to discover home. The crew of Apollo 8 had made it all the way to the far side of the moon, and then, as they came around the bend, there it was, “the pale blue dot,” half-lit on the horizon, a frail planet, suspended in the darkness, alone. Their “Earth rise” photograph would become one of the most iconic images in the history of still photography.
“Space changes people,” he said, welcoming them. “Every time you talk to an astronaut, somebody who has been into space, they will tell you that when you look back at the Earth and see how beautiful it is and how fragile it is and that thin layer of the Earth’s atmosphere that it makes you really appreciate home.”
The better plan, then, was to preserve “this gem” called Earth. “We don’t want Mars as a Plan B,” he said. “Plan B is to make sure Plan A works. And Plan A is to make sure we keep this planet around for thousands of years.”
Earth should be “zoned residential and light industrial.” The point was the same: all “heavy industry” would move into space. He now called this the “Great Inversion”—mining for energy resources in space, while leaving Earth alone. This planet was finite, Bezos said, lacking the resources to keep up with the demand of a world growing ever more developed and dynamic. “There’s all kinds of interesting stuff you can do around the solar system, but the thing that’s going to move the needle for humanity the most is mining near-Earth objects and building manufacturing infrastructure in place,”
“We only have a couple hundred years.” “If you take baseline energy usage today, compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years and you have to cover the entire Earth’s surface with solar cells” to keep up with demand, he said. “You either go out into space or you need to control population on Earth. You need to control energy usage on Earth. These things are totally at odds with a free society. And it’s going to be dull. I want my great-great-grandchildren to be using more energy per capita than I do. And the only way they can be using more energy per capita than me is if we expand out into the solar system. And then we can really keep Earth as this incredible gem that it is.”
Blue Origin’s oft-repeated goal was “millions of people living and working in space.” But over the long term, it was even more ambitious than that. “If we want, we could have a trillion human beings living in the solar system,” he said during an awards ceremony in Washington. “And then we’ll have a thousand Einsteins, and a thousand Mozarts. What a cool civilization that would be.”
All Amazon had to do then was “take that infrastructure and kind of reassemble it in a new way, and do something new and inventive with it.… In space today, that is impossible. On the Internet today, two kids in their dorm room can reinvent an industry, because the heavy-lifting infrastructure is in place for that. Two kids in their dorm room can’t do anything interesting in space.” He wanted, then, to use his vast fortune to lay the foundation of that infrastructure into space. To make that part of his legacy. “If I’m 80 years old and I’m looking back on my life,” he said during an awards ceremony, “and I can say that I put in place, with the help of the teammates at Blue Origin, the heavy-lifting infrastructure that made access to space cheap and inexpensive so that the next generation could have the entrepreneurial explosion like I saw on the Internet, I’ll be a very happy 80-year old.”
Working just one day a week at Blue meant time was precious. He stood up and headed out to his next meeting. Wednesdays were for space.