What’s that expression — having enough money to burn? How apt now, given that three of this planet’s self-made billionaires are seemingly intent on spending vast sums of their personal wealth on leaving Earth — even just temporarily.
Earlier this month, Virgin founder Richard Branson took a quick flip into the lower reaches of space on his Virgin Galactic space shuttle, floating there for a few precious minutes of weightlessness before returning to terra firma with ego intact.
Well, anything Branson can do, Jeff Bezos can surely better — which he did, blasting off into a slighter higher quasi-orbit on Blue Origin’s New Shephard, the Amazon-founder’s spaceship. If you are the world’s sometimes richest man, depending on the variances of stock markets, then you can spend your vast personal fortunes doing as you please — yes, even burning it heading into space.
Tesla’s Elon Musk has far bigger and commercially advanced plans to commercialise space travel, building a fleet of reusable rockets that deliver payloads for Nasa and put satellites into high orbit. Whether he will soon join Bezos and Branson by jumping on a rocket is anyone’s guess — but he has at least launched a Tesla into orbit simply because he can.
Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon last month, focusing more on his personal projects rather than on the company he founded 1994 to initially sell books over the internet. He wasn’t the first to realise the commercial potential of this new computer-based marketplace that might grow into something useful if it caught on. Bezos, however, was the best at it. In the last quarter of 2020 as the coronavirus took hold and shook traditional business models to the core the world over, Amazon reported bumper sales of $100 billion (Dh367 billion) and its shares pretty much doubled as it provided a stable outlet for millions to engage in meaningful retail therapy online.
The company is now worth a shade under $2 trillion — more than the GDP of Italy, for instance — allowing Bezos to take a back seat and focus on his other passions that include space flight, his Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund and playing with The Washington Post.
Depending on the stock market, Bezos’ personal wealth is worth around $200 billion — a tidy sum for a man who had to explain to people what the internet was when he started flogging books online.
And yes, you can buy his biography online too, which will reveal Jeffrey Preston Bezos was born on January 12, 1964 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While still in high school, he developed the Dream Institute, a centre that promoted creative thinking in young students. Maybe rocket science was part of that thinking? But after graduating summa cum laude in 1986 from Princeton University with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, he undertook a series of jobs before joining the New York investment bank of D.E. Shaw & Co. in 1990. He was a rising star, soon named senior vice president — the firm’s youngest — and was in charge of examining investment opportunities on the internet. The new communications and marketing medium had enormous potential then, with web usage growing by more than 2,000 per cent a year.
Bezos obviously figured out very quickly that there was money to be made. He quit D.E. Shaw in 1994 and moved to Seattle, Washington to open a virtual bookstore. Working out of his garage with a handful of employees, Bezos began developing the software for the site. Named after the South American river, Amazon sold its first book in July 1995.
It quickly became the leader in e-commerce. Open 24 hours a day, the site was user-friendly, encouraging browsers to post their own reviews of books and offering discounts, personalised recommendations, and searches for out-of-print books. In June 1998 it began selling CDs, and later that year it added videos. In 1999 Bezos added auctions to the site and invested in other virtual stores. The success of Amazon encouraged other retailers, including major book chains, to establish online stores. And the rest is history.
Bezos’ flight into space last Tuesday also carried some pieces of aviation history including a piece of canvas used on the Wright brothers’ first plane, a medallion made from the vehicle that performed the first hot air balloon flight in 1783 and a pair of goggles used by legendary pilot Amelia Earhart.
The trip was also the culmination of a lifelong dream for Bezos.
“It’s amazing. There are no words,” he said after returning to Earth. “I’m not talented enough to put this into words.”
The entrepreneur spoke about how seeing Earth from suborbital space changed his perspective. “When you look at the planet, there are no borders,” Bezos said. “It’s one planet, and we share it and it’s fragile.”
He added that the journey reinforced his commitment to solving climate change, saying that investing in space technologies could help future generations.
“We have to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future,” Bezos said. “We live on this beautiful planet. You can’t imagine how thin the atmosphere is when you see it from space.”
Bezos flew alongside his brother, Mark, and 82-year-old Wally Funk, a pioneering former test pilot who underwent training in the 1960s to demonstrate that women could qualify for Nasa’s astronaut corps. Funk, whose launch was 60 years in the making, is now the oldest person to reach space. Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen, 18, rounded out the four-person crew and set his own milestone, becoming the youngest.
With inputs from agencies