Amazon.com Inc. founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos vowed to use his rocket startup to develop robotic rovers and perhaps human habitats on the moon's surface, even if such projects fail to win financial support from the U.S. government.
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In a personal, wide-ranging talk at a space conference here Friday, Mr. Bezos laid out his vision for lunar exploration and eventual settlement.
Depicting such efforts as a matter of long-term human survival, he said: "This is not something that we may choose to do; this is something we must do."
Without divulging details about the new generations of powerful rockets, spacecraft and landing vehicles he envisions will be necessary to establish such permanent outposts, Mr. Bezos made an impassioned argument for accelerating private space travel. He argued that future generations won't be able to survive on earth without expanding into other parts of the solar system.
"The alternative is stasis," he said, adding that without space settlements, societies around the globe "will have to stop growing" due to environmental and other constraints. "That's not the future that I want for my grandchildren, or my grandchildren's grandchildren."
Mr. Bezos called the efforts of his rocket company, Blue Origin LLC, "the most important work I am doing." The speech was delivered at the annual meeting of the National Space Society, a nonprofit group championing space colonies.
A self-described space geek and lifelong reader of science fiction novels, Mr. Bezos in the past has talked about his determination to play a big part in creating building blocks to usher in supercheap, reliable and frequent transportation beyond the atmosphere.
Like fellow billionaire Elon Musk, the founder and head of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Mr. Bezos has talked about developing the infrastructure to eventually move millions of people into space and transform launches of reusable rockets into trips as routine as airline travel. But Mr. Bezos's latest comments were unusually stark in saying that to maintain economic vitality, "we will have to leave this planet" and "we don't have a lot of time" to map out a step-by-step approach, starting with reduced launch costs.
"It won't be done by one company" or by just the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Mr. Bezos said, but instead will require "thousands of companies working in concert over many decades."
On a practical and political level, arguments advanced by Mr. Bezos support President Donald Trump's focus of relying on public-private partnerships for space exploration, including building landing craft able to take experiments -- and within a few years astronauts -- to the lunar surface.
"We must go back to the moon, and this time to stay," Mr. Bezos said, echoing one of the White House's principles for establishing sustainable outposts.
Even before the Trump administration came into office, Blue Origin proposed that NASA help fund it to pursue a fledgling program designed to send robotic spacecraft to the moon. Other companies also are developing similar projects, and NASA is soliciting ideas for various sizes of landers.
On his own, Mr. Bezos has sold roughly $1 billion of Amazon stock annually to invest in Blue Origin, which hopes to start offering suborbital space tourism flights by 2019.
The fast growing, closely held company also is developing two larger rockets aimed at carrying satellites and spacecraft into earth orbit and beyond.
Noting that for the foreseeable future, "very few people are going to want to abandon earth altogether," he said liquid-fueled rockets able to be flown 100 times or more with minimal maintenance are vital for a new and affordable transportation model.
Responding to questions about his commitment to pursue human space travel regardless of federal support, Amazon's CEO joked that either "other people will take over the vision, or I will run out of money."
But he ended the talk on a more serious note by reiterating his view that moon exploration is an essential step toward transporting humans to Mars and allowing them to create habitats on the Red Planet.
Such gradual efforts are the only way to avoid a repeat of earlier policy mistakes, he said, which saw the Apollo astronauts land on the moon but then morphed into five decades without any more human missions there.
"I don't like to skip steps," he said, explaining that trying to take people directly to Mars would be futile. "There would be a ticker-tape parade and then 50 years of nothing."
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