Comparison of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk’s Visions for Space Colonization

Jeff Bezos recently (June 2018) gave an interview about his visions for space colonization. Jeff Bezos seldom talks about his ideas so it has been until now hard to grasp where exactly he is going with his rocket company Blue Origin.

Lets first compare some of the things which are similar.

Cut the Cost of Access to Space

Both Bezos and Musk identify the key problem why the space age never really happened. It has been far too expensive to launch things into space. People can dream up all sorts of amazing space bases, lunar or Mars colonies. But until there is an affordable way of getting all those parts up into space, it isn’t going to happen.

Elon Musk’s perspective is that he has calculated that kick starting a civilization on Mars will require 1 million colonists. There is no way you can send 1 million colonists to Mars with current prices. Not even if you shaved of 5%, 10%, 50% reduction in price. No, we need several magnitudes reduction in price 10–100x price reduction.

What is the Purpose of the Cost Reduction?

Here is were the visions diverge. Elon Musk has a concrete easy to grasp goal: He wants to colonize Mars. That is easy to pitch and grasp for people. Elon’s reasons for this is basically that we should not put all our eggs in one basked. Maintain human civilization on just one planet is in Elon Musk’s view bad risk management. An asteroid impact, global thermonuclear war or whatever calamity one can imagine could wipe out all of humanity for good.

Jeff Bezos’ vision is less concrete and hence not as easy to grasp. However I think the analogy he made in the interview about how he was able to create Amazon, gave a good explanation. Bezos explained how he was able to build this huge business because all the heavy lifting had already been done:

  1. Somebody had already invented computers and made them cheap enough to put on every desk. Now there was a way to look at Amazon products.
  2. The credit card system was already in place which made it possible Amazon to receive payments.
  3. A global transport system existed which allowed them to ship out packages.

If none of these things had already existed it would have been impossible for Jeff Bezos to start Amazon with just a measly 1 million dollars start capital.

Jeff Bezos views what he is doing with Blue Origin as creating infrastructure like the global transport network, credit card payments system or similar. By offering cheap and reliable transport services into space, Jeff Bezos will have taken care of the heavy lifting for a large array of future space company startups.

You realize there is a lot of truth to this if you have ever looked at various space startups. With today’s powerful computers, 3D printers and vast communication networks it is possible for quite small teams to design stuff for space. We got small teams creating moon landers and satellites. The problem for all these companies is that launching their stuff into space is still extremely expensive.

If that price drops, we are going to open the flood gates of innovation the way the internet did. The way the internet allowed a whole new forest of companies to emerge, cheap space access will do the same.

Human Colonization of the Solar System

Elon Musk’s vision is clear. Jeff Bezos’ view is less clear. My own interpretation is that they both have similar long term vision. The whole solar system filled with space colonies.

It is in the short term where their vision diverge strongly. Elon Musk wants to get started colonizing Mars soon. Bezos doesn’t see Mars attractive as long as there is space on earth. In his view the Earth is the most beautiful and pristine planet in the solar system. This is where people are going to want to live.

Bezos looks upon space more as a place for extracting resources and manufacture things for the benefit of humans rather than a place we will live, unless the earth gets overcrowded and that is the only option.

Which Vision Appeals Most to Me?

I think I would have to call it a tie, with perhaps some preference for Elon Musk. I think Jeff Bezos’ vision is the most realistic and logical one. It simply isn’t obvious why anybody would want to live on Mars.

Had the option been open to me when I was younger, I might have colonized Mars, just to be a pioneer and break boundaries. The logic of going would be similar to the logic of exploring the arctic. People don’t always do what is comfortable. Humans like to overcome challenges and prove themselves. They want to make a mark on history. That could make some people head off to Mars. But is that really enough attract 1 million people to Mars? I am in doubt.

At least in the short term. Hundreds of years into the future, we might not have much choice.

However the edge Elon Musk’s vision has over Jeff Bezos’ is that it is so crystal clear. It is something that fires up people and makes them want to go the extra mile. As a way of marshaling our resources and intellect into becoming a space fearing civilization it is a more powerful one.

However the reality we end up with, is likely more like what Bezos imagines.

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