It all lasted 11 minutes, a thrilling race for the richest man on the planet.
But there was something inevitably exciting about yesterday’s perfect rocket launch, Blue Origin, and its incredibly soft landing, a triumph of capitalism and American ingenuity.
But just as Jeff Bezos was captivated by the beauty of Earth from the edge of space, the mission also prompts us to see it in a new way. The man picked up the cable news for hours on end turning the event into a TV extravaganza, with plenty of subplots and the distribution of trucks full of cash.
There was the indelible image of Bezos, in his flight suit, thumbing his thumb out the window moments after the capsule landed in the Texas desert. As he proclaimed the “best day ever”, there was no doubt that it represented a career pivot and a makeover.
I say that, and also pay homage to Richard Branson’s achievement, without cynicism. It was a blast to anchor Fox’s coverage on Branson’s Virgin Galactic landing earlier this month. These are two billionaires who could have continued to earn huge sums of money.
Bezos had previously confused experts by making Amazon a world-changing business giant. He had already created a cinema division, Alexa and same day delivery. He had already bought the Washington Post.
Now he wants to be seen as a space exploration guy and says he will split his time between that and his climate change foundation. (Amazon, where he just stepped down as CEO, will be heading on his own? I don’t think so.)
Think about what Bezos wasn’t talking about yesterday: questionable conditions in Amazon warehouses. Controversy over Post’s stories or his feud with Donald Trump. And certainly not his allegation of extortion against the National Enquirer for posting stories about his extramarital affair.
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In fact, one of his rare references to Amazon was thanking the company’s customers, “because you paid for it.” Some subscribers might not be thrilled to hear this, but Bezos is free to spend his personal fortune however he wants.
There were a lot of nice touches, like Bezos had a screenwriter. Take the oldest female passenger to space (Wally Funk, 82, an aviator who was unable to join the astronaut program in 1961 due to her gender), and the youngest, an 18-year-old student. The Dutch student replaced someone who agreed to pay $ 28 million for the seat.
Bezos also took Amelia Earhart’s glasses during the flight and named it after Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
The normally reclusive man, sporting a cowboy hat, was quite talkative during a press conference that was mostly an infomercial, complete with a video and a handful of press questions. He spoke of the “serene and peaceful” feeling of weightlessness and how he was “amazed” by “the fragility of the earth”. This allowed him to launch into an environmental discourse: “As we move around the planet, we damage it.”
And then, the surprise twist. Bezos, who has had his fair share of negative coverage, has started complaining about “ad hominem attacks”, which are “amplified by social media.” So, since he caught the attention of television, he unveiled the Courage and Civility Awards, each accompanied by a gift of $ 100 million to distribute to meritorious efforts.
One of the recipients was celebrity chef Jose Andres, founder of a non-profit organization dedicated to providing meals after natural disasters.
The other: liberal CNN commentator Van Jones, who worked in the Obama White House. Jones has done a good job on criminal justice reform, but his caustic anti-Trump rhetoric hardly seems the model of civility. So Bezos was playing according to his left leanings. (Even Anderson Cooper, who anchors the network’s coverage, was stunned by this development.)
I’m skeptical that Bezos and Branson are ushering in a new era of space tourism, given the huge costs involved. But it’s fascinating to see private companies exploring the cosmos, a mission once limited to the government.
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In a time when the country is consumed with partisanship over everything from vaccinations to infrastructure, Bezos is trying to rise to a higher plateau now that he looks down on Earth. Just as John D. Rockefeller and other titans of the industrial age donated large sums to colleges and institutions, Bezos wants to follow Bill Gates’ path of redefining himself as a man of charity.
Whether or not people buy Bezos 2.0, there are worse ways billionaires can spend their money.