At a recent launch event in Washington D.C., Amazon founder Jeff Bezos showed the world his first lunar lander, designed by his space exploration company Blue Origin. But Bezos went much further than just discussing the lander – he talked about his dream for cities to be built in our solar system.

UnSUBURBIA has looked at Bezos’s big ideas, and how placemaking in space could change how we live on earth.

The inspiration behind Bezos’s space quest

Bezos’s stimulus for entering the outer-world experience of space travel and exploration comes from a forward-thinker of the past. In 1975, Gerard O’Neill, a Princeton physicist, spoke in front of the US Congress to pitch his big idea for the future of civilisation working with NASA – using the moon as an outpost to build new colonies away from earth.

O’Neill’s project began in 1969, the same year as the Apollo moon landing and during the heat of the Vietnam War and social and racial inequalities in the US. His students had become disillusioned with how engineering could change the world for the better, so O’Neill took the most promising students and posed the question: “Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilisation?”

From there, the concept began to expand. O’Neill moved from his students’ original ideas, to working alongside architects, planners and artists to bring this theoretical solution to life. The design was based on using cylinders, spheres and new surfaces to offer a new way of civilisation. It was placemaking on another worldly level.

The rationale behind O’Neill’s concept was to combat the growing issues around overpopulation, energy crises, ecosystem extinction and the rising risk of industrial pollution. He even wrote a book, The High Frontier, discussing moon colonies and why they were the future of the human race.

However, the appetite for civilisation in space soon soured during the presidency of Ronald Regan and prime ministerial reign of Margret Thatcher and an emphasis was again placed on the economic expansion of the earth, without any thought around the issues O’Neill had raised.

But where does Bezos come into this? During his academic years in the 1980s, Bezos studied electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton and guess who taught him at the university – Gerald O’Neill.

The birth of Blue Origin 

Under the influences of O’Neill’s ideas, Bezos – who had already seen huge successes with Amazon – launched this very own space exploration company at the turn of the millennium. Listed as a “privately funded aerospace manufacturer and sub-orbital spaceflight services company”, the aim of Blue Origin is to commercialise space travel to masses in a cost and time efficient manner.

Over the last 19 years, the company has been able to design, innovate and produce new ways of accessing space for both passenger and payloads. Blue Origin currently operates three rockets, vehicles and landers. At the heart of all designs sit power, precision and versatility – it’s about creating solutions that meet all facets of space travel needs, rather than just the one.

The New Shepard, named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space, is a “reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads (i.e. cargo shipments) past the Kármán line – the internationally recognized boundary of space”. The trip beyond the Kármán takes just 11 minutes.

A heavy-lift launch vehicle aimed at carrying passengers and payloads to the earth orbit and beyond, the New Glenn will build a road between our planet and space. The rocket is reusable, being able to make up to 25 missions. The third vehicle is the Blue Moon lander, which has been in development the longest and will be used for transporting, deploying and hosting payloads onto the moon’s surface.

Blue Origin’s emphasis is making space travel a reusable entity too, allowing for several missions to be made with each vehicle, using the ‘launch, land, repeat’ tagline for the missions to offer ‘decreased costs, increased access’. It’s like Bezos is trying to create a train service to outer space.

The concept of creating efficient space travel for exploration and discovery is a good one. Yet the underlying ideology behind Bezos’s reasons for creating Blue Origin hark back to those of the man who planted space travel in his mind all those years ago.

‘Going to space to benefit earth’

At a launch event for the Blue Moon lander in May 2019, Bezos set out his stall for space being the future of civilisation. Blue Origin’s mission statement highlights its ambitions to have people working and living space in order to preserve the future of the planet – “we are building a road so your children can build the future”, as the company puts it.

His presentation in Washington D.C was called Going to Space to Benefit Earth, and he highlighted facts which we already knew around the changes required to help protect and preserve our planet. Rather than the publicly-funded NASA in the 1970s, Bezos wants to make his private company capture the imagination of the public when it comes to space – and as the head of a gargantuan retailer, Bezos knows how to sell a concept.

Yet many of those in attendance at Blue Origin’s event and other industry experts were left feeling like they were hearing the same story over again – Bezos’s ideas were the same as his space mentor Gerald O’Neill, and they were over 40 years old. One critic labelled the concept as being “a watered-down version of nostalgia for yesterday’s future”.

The issues around buying into Bezos’s concept of space habitation are that although the technology has advanced rapidly since The High Frontier, the reason and rationale has stayed the same, as have the methods and overall goals of living in space.

Even the renderings which have been created by Blue Origin don’t offering anything new. Images show the skylines of Singapore and Seattle underneath glass cylinders, whilst another shows Florence’s medieval architecture. This isn’t new, exciting or innovative – it’s just what we have now, but in space. Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands is seen in Singapore’s rendering, but its inclusion shows how the architectural megastructures of yesteryear are no longer embraced – Safdie built the iconic Habitat 67, a brilliant example of human-orientated placemaking, before turning his hand to luxury hotels.

Although they have good intentions, Bezos’s concepts seem to be firmly rooted on the thoughts of the past without any ideas of how to make a civilisation for the future.

Could we build colonies in space?

The worrying questions around Bezos’s space project is have we really learnt anything over the last 50 years that make this idea feasible?

Back in 1975, without the innovation we have at our disposal today, the idea of colonising in space was optimistic, but there was nothing to prove or disprove the notion. In 2019, the complexities, assumptions and unknowns still haven’t been tackled and the consequences of creating an ecosystem away from earth is still an ambiguous quantity.

Yes, action needs to be taken to protect our planet for future generations, but Bezos and Blue Origin need to spend more time at the drawing board before we can start believing that space habitation is a practical solution to our crises.