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Jeff Bezos explains how going to the moon is harder now than it was for JFK in 1962

Alan Boyle
Jeff Bezos checks out a framed facsimile of a note bearing the signatures of three Mercury astronauts, given as a gift by Caroline Kennedy. (JFK Library Foundation Photo / Tom Fitzsimmons)

Back in 1962, President John F. Kennedy said he chose to have Americans go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Today, billionaire Jeff Bezos said it’s still hard — and in some ways, it’s even harder than it was in the ’60s.

Bezos, the world’s richest person by virtue of his status as the founder of Amazon and the Blue Origin space venture, laid out his argument during a discussion with the late president’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Today’s “JFK Library Space Summit” was a daylong affair that drew luminaries ranging from Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg.

JFK’s famous Rice University speech came up when Bezos reflected on how difficult it is to get off Earth and travel to other worlds. “It’s almost like God set this problem up as achievable, but just barely,” he said.

The technical difficulties were huge when JFK pledged to send astronauts to the moon and bring them back safely by the end of the 1960s: Some of the technologies required to do so didn’t even exist at the time. Nevertheless, the job was done on the promised timetable.

Today, many of those technical difficulties have been sorted out. But challenges remain. Some of those challenges have to do with the time frame required for exploration and settlement beyond Earth orbit. For instance, Bezos founded Blue Origin nearly 20 years ago, but has yet to put a person in space or a payload in orbit.

“We are working on deep infrastructure,” Bezos said, “and so deep infrastructure takes a long time to build, and the pipeline is really long.” In contrast to, say, making a movie or founding a startup, “the kinds of things we’re working on have 15-, 20-year kinds of time frames, and that’s very, very challenging,” he explained.

“This is hard. And it’s supposed to be hard,” he said. Then he turned toward Kennedy with a smile and said, “I don’t know, I heard somewhere that we do these things because they’re hard.”

Bezos surmised that in some ways, it’s harder for the federal government to marshal its forces for new space odysseys than it is for him to do so at Blue Origin. He pointed to the fits and starts that have plagued NASA’s space exploration plans over the past 15 years.

“A lot of the big government programs get very protected by members of Congress,” Bezos said. “I assume, if I were a senior official at NASA, I would be very frustrated from time to time … because you’re taking an engineering mentality to an engineering problem, and that requires consistency of purpose. You can’t start and stop. You can’t change direction halfway.”

He said the problem arises when the space program is seen as a jobs program, with the requirement to put those jobs in the right states for the right senators.

“That is going to change the objective,” he said. “Now your objective is not to get a man to the moon, or a woman to the moon, but to get a woman to the moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district. That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one. … They didn’t have that back in 1961 and 1962. They were moving fast.”

The procurement process is also more complex than it was a half-century ago. Bezos referred to the fact that nine contractors submitted bids to build NASA’s lunar lander in July 1962, and the contract was awarded to Grumman Aircraft within just a few months.

“Today, there would be three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win,” Bezos said. “The thing that slows things down is procurement. It’s become a bigger bottleneck than the technology, which I know for a fact for all the well-meaning people at NASA is frustrating.”

That mention of lawsuits could be seen as a veiled reference to SpaceX, which sued the federal government last month over its selection process for a rocket development program. Blue Origin, which could receive as much as $500 million in funding through that program, has joined the lawsuit on the government’s side.

Bezos said he was all for the Trump administration’s initiative to send astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, which would be 52 years since the last human walked on the moon. He said sending people to the moon, and setting up settlements in the moon’s polar regions, would require government support — probably the support of multiple governments. Fortunately, a wide range of nations including Japan and European countries are willing to join the U.S. in its moon program, Bezos said.

“What I really hope is that we stick with going back to the moon, this time to stay, because that is actually the fastest way to get to Mars,” he said. “It’s an illusion that you can skip a step.”

The Boston event took place one day after Blue Origin conducted the first hot-fire test of its hydrogen-fueled BE-7 rocket engine, which is designed for use on the company’s Blue Moon lunar lander. “Data looks great, and hardware is in perfect condition,” Bezos reported in an Instagram post that popped up today.

Why go to the moon? Not just because it is hard, Bezos said. On that point, he referred to his oft-repeated observation that humanity’s growing hunger for energy and resources will eventually require expansion outward into the solar system.

“It’s not optional,” Bezos said. “There are people who haven’t figured it out yet — but they’re wrong, or they just haven’t thought about it yet.”

When the talk ended, Caroline Kennedy gave Bezos a gift that harked back to the billionaire’s childhood fascination with spaceflight. It was a framed facsimile of a letter from the Mercury era, addressed to Caroline and signed by astronauts John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom.

A couple of those names have special resonance for Bezos: Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship, New Shepard, is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space. The orbital-class New Glenn rocket — which is due for its maiden launch in 2021 — pays tribute to John Glenn, the first American in orbit.

Bezos read through the letter and asked Kennedy about the text. “John Glenn says here, ‘Best regards to Caroline, and next time I’ll try to bring the monkey,’ ” he said.

“I was actually really disappointed when I met them,” Kennedy explained, “because I really wanted to see the monkey that had gone up into space, which is what my mother told me about.” That refers to the fact that U.S. space officials sent several animals, including a chimpanzee named Ham, on suborbital test trips in advance of Shepard’s flight.

“Why not New Ham?” Kennedy joked.

“Right, New Ham!” replied Bezos, playing along. “It will be a very small vehicle.”

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