WASHINGTON — You can call Jeff Bezos a lot of things. Billionaire. Entrepreneur. Amazon founder. But he might prefer the title 'barnstormer.' They were pilots of the Roaring Twenties who offered anyone with the courage, a chance to soar.
"Barnstormers of the past would take their biplanes, land in farmers' fields and take people up for a few minutes so they could experience flight," Bezos said.
100 years later, a new Roaring Twenties is witness to another type of aviation pioneer. As founder of Blue Origin, it's now Bezos who offers the chance to soar. Not to the clouds, but to space.
Bezos spoke on Nov. 11 at Washington National Cathedral during a public forum on the future of space. He compared those early barnstorming flights to the 11-minute sub-orbital trips that passengers experience aboard his New Shepard launch vehicle. He has taken the trip himself, and called it 'transformative.'
"This planet looks so big from the ground. But up there, what you see is the immense blackness of space... and you look down and there's this jewel that's just vibrant with life, and it's so precious."
Bezos said every single passenger has returned to Earth with a profound new perspective on our planet. Actor William Shatner is among them. The moment Star Trek's Captain Kirk stepped from the capsule, Bezos was there to greet him.
"He was so emotional. There were tears streaming down his face. And it was transformational for him." Bezos said witnessing Shatner's reaction was one of the most moving experiences of his own life.
His childhood might explain why. Bezos was five years old when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. He said it left a huge impression on him.
"I grew up reading science fiction. I grew up watching Star Trek. In fourth grade, my neighbors Dean, Kyle, the three of us would play Star Trek all summer long." Bezos said his love of that TV series played a role in his offer to invite Shatner a ride into space. "We gave each other the gift of space. He gave it to me when I was in fourth grade. And I gave it to him when he was 90 years old."
Bezos plans to offer that gift to yet another celebrity. "Good Morning America" co-host Michael Strahan is scheduled to blast off Dec. 9 from the Blue Origin launch site in West Texas. Joining Strahan will be Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of astronaut Alan Shepard. The launch vehicle is named after her father, the first American in space.
As exciting as they are, the New Shepard flights are about much more than a celebrity's 11-minute adventure, Bezos said. Engineers learn something new with each flight. All they discover, he said, pushes the space industry forward in the quest to build reliable, reusable space vehicles. It's that reliability, he said, that is key to the future of our deeper journey into space.
Bezos predicted that bigger, reusable space vehicles eventually will unlock space travel to millions of people. Many millions will live and work in space, he said, prospering in huge, near-Earth colonies. The people born in those colonies will consider it their first home, he said, and they will travel to Earth much the way millions now travel to vacation spots.
"I know that sounds fantastical. But believe me, if you had been there with Wilbur and Orville, you'd have thought that the (Boeing ) 787 was a fantastical idea too," Bezos said. "These fantastical ideas do come true, but you have to create the pre-conditions for them to come true."
Dreamers come first, Bezos said. They inspire builders. And builders create new foundations upon which dreamers can dream even further, in a cycle that keeps repeating.
As we push forward, might we find neighbors out there in space? Bezos said odds favor the existence of intelligent life on other planets.
"How could there not be? There are so many stars, just in this galaxy. And then so many galaxies," said Bezos. "The odds that we are the only intelligent life in the universe seem vanishingly small to me."
Have we been visited by any extraterrestrial neighbors? "I very much doubt that," he said. "I think we would know if we had been. But are they out there? Probably."