Bezos's biographer: this is no mid-life crisis – Jeff is the ultimate 'space geek'

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The Blue Origin crew, from left to right: Mark Bezos, brother of Jeff Bezos; Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin; Oliver Daemen of the Netherlands; and Wally Funk, aviation pioneer from Texas - Blue Origin
The Blue Origin crew, from left to right: Mark Bezos, brother of Jeff Bezos; Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin; Oliver Daemen of the Netherlands; and Wally Funk, aviation pioneer from Texas - Blue Origin

There will be those watching balding 57-year-old billionaire Jeff Bezos blast off from west Texas into space in his New Shepard rocket today who will regard it as part and parcel of a very public and very expensive mid-life crisis, says his biographer, Brad Stone. After all the world’s richest man has recently stood down as CEO of Amazon, the global giant that he founded in 1993, and in 2019 divorced Mackenzie, his wife of 26 years, taking up with the younger broadcaster Lauren Sanchez.

“But this is a man who watched the moon landings in 1969, and who grew up in a world of Star Trek and sci-fi books,” insists San Francisco-based Stone, a Bloomberg journalist. “This launch is all part of his lifelong love affair with space.”

Indeed, adds Stone, Bezos always intended Blue Origin, the space exploration company he set up in 2000 just six years after establishing Amazon, to be his real legacy. “Blue Origin is his means of translating that childhood dream into reality, whereas Amazon was a means to an end, part of a strategy to build a business empire big enough to fund getting himself into space.”

There have been those who have suggested that with a fortune put at £152 billion by Forbes in 2021, Bezos has fallen well short of the sort of philanthropy practised by the likes of another tech entrepreneur, Bill Gates. “He has given $10 billion [£7.2 billion] to climate change, and a couple of billion to early education,” points out Stone, whose biography was written with the co-operation of senior Amazon executives but not of his subject, “but he has given a lot more to Blue Origin”

“It may be controversial but he views this as him giving back to society. If you build a presence in space, he would say, it stops the world being stuck in its own stasis. Of course, you can argue that there is a more urgent need to invest in protecting and replenishing the resources of earth, but all his life Jeff Bezos has believed the future lies in space.”

And if it that makes him sound like an unworldly space geek, Stone sounds a cautionary note. “This a man with his feet planted on the ground. One of his superpowers proven by how Amazon has grown is his ability to peer round corners and see into the future. When he blasts off today, in his own mind he is setting out to do that again.”

Regarding space geeks as oddballs, he urges, is outdated. “The nerds now rule the world, the boys who read sci-fi have become the men who have built multi-trillion-dollar tech companies in Silicon Valley. Where do you think Amazon’s Alexa comes from? Being called a space geek is for Bezos a mark of respect.”

Women, of course, also read sci-fi and build tech companies, but there does seem to be something exclusively male about the three billionaires currently competing to outdo each other in rocketing into space. Richard Branson in Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity beat Bezos’s New Shepard to it by nine days. And Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s Space X is not far behind.

“Branson’s project is about space tourism,” suggests Stone. “While Bezos likes the idea of tourism too, he has a bigger vision and is building an orbital rocket and a moon lander. In that his real battle is with Musk.”

And it is against Musk that Bezos measures himself. They are both geeks, says Stone, “but Musk has this ability to turn his admirers into fans in a way Bezos just hasn’t been able to. Yes, Musk has controversial views, and can be undisciplined on social media [he has criticised Covid lockdowns as dumb and accused governments of manipulating the death toll], but that seems to make him more popular.”

The gate to Jeff Bezos’s™Blue Origin operations in West Texas - Getty
The gate to Jeff Bezos’s™Blue Origin operations in West Texas - Getty

By contrast Bezos, careful in his public statements and image management, is not “very revered”, says Stone. “That frustrates him. He would like to be seen as an adventurer. Instead the world sees him [because of Amazon] as a monopolist and as the personification of the widening gap between the super rich and everyone else.”

One ambition for today's flight into space, then, is changing that perception. Taking his brother, Mark, seven years younger, with him will humanise the whole project. “He is the funniest guy I know,” Bezos once said.

And including on the flight an 18-year-old ‘mini-me’ space geek, Oliver Daemen, as well as 82-year-old Wally Funk, one of 13 women trained to go into space in the 1960s, but never allowed to cross the final frontier, has all the hallmarks of an effort to get the visuals right.

That, though, is to under-estimate Bezos’s seriousness, warns Stone. “He has chosen July 20 very carefully because that is the 52nd anniversary of those moon landings that first inspired him.” The resonance with Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and “one small step for man…” is part of Bezos’s plan. “He wants to rekindle the passion and fervour that space travel generated when he was a boy. He wants to show people that space is the future.”

Brad Stone’s Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire is available from Telegraph Books for £16.99. To order, visit books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514

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