- Jeff Bezos asked a reporter to watch a PBS special from 1975 before agreeing to be interviewed about Blue Origin, his rocket company.
- The special, featuring famed science-fiction author Isaac Asimov and physicist Gerard O’Neill, discusses the need for humanity to leave Earth.
- Colonizing space with millions of people is something that Bezos says he believes in doing with “increasing certainty.”
- You can watch the whole video via YouTube below.
It’s no secret Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has always looked to the stars.
After all, Amazon’s Alexa was designed with the intention of becoming like the all-knowing ship’s computer from “Star Trek.”
Indeed, Bezos sells $1 billion a year in Amazon stock just to fund Blue Origin’s operations.
Notably, Bezos put one condition on his interview with Wired: Steven Levy, the reporter, would have to watch a black-and-white PBS program from 1975 before he’d agree to discuss Blue Origin.
In the special, believed lost to the ages until recently, the famed science-fiction author Isaac Asimov and the physicist Gerard O’Neill discuss the need for humanity to spread beyond Earth – a notion that Bezos tells Wired he believes with “increasing certainty.”
You can watch the 30-minute video here:
The video was apparently unearthed and uploaded to YouTube by the Space Studies Institute (SSI), which was founded by O’Neill, a highly influential voice in Bezos’ life.
The video, according to SSI, was “discovered in a crumpled box in the dark back of a storage locker in New Jersey” by one of its employees.
Bezos was so obsessed with O’Neill’s vision of the future that Bezos wrote his valedictorian graduation speech about how he looked forward to seeing millions of people live among the stars. “Space, the final frontier, meet me there!” Bezos concluded, according to the book “The Space Barons” by Christian Davenport.
Meanwhile, Asimov was also an inspiration of a different sort to Elon Musk, whose rocket company SpaceX is a fast-moving rival to Blue Origin. Musk has widely credited Asimov’s classic novel “Foundation,” which also deals with a humanity that has outgrown Earth, with inspiring his own efforts to colonize Mars.
What’s in the interview, and why it influenced Bezos
In his book “The High Frontier,” published in 1976, O’Neill wrote about a televised interview with his friend Asimov, the famous sci-fi author. During the program, Asimov explained why sci-fi writers tend to place civilizations on the surface of a planet instead of in space itself.
“The anecdote is legendary in the Space Community. With no known copies of the show, it became almost mythical,” SSI wrote in a preamble to the full episode. “For the first time since its original 1975 broadcast, here is the complete presentation.”
O’Neill was invited onto the program ahead of his appearance at a NASA conference. Host and journalist Harold Hayes set up the interview by noting the 1970s energy crisis, and how humanity might soon need to seek drastic solutions to its finite resources on Earth.
“It’s possible to have a rapid growth of wealth and productivity, and living space and comfortable living conditions for people, not on the Earth, and not on another planetary surface – the moon or Mars or anything like that – but rather in habitats which are built in free space,” O’Neill said in the program.
He added that such habitats would be located “a distance from here which is similar to the distance to the moon,” where they could float freely and untethered to either Earth or the moon.
“It’s possible to make habitats which are relatively big – big enough to be very Earth-like – out of ordinary materials like steel and aluminum and glass,” O’Neill said. “And it’s possible to find those materials in very large quantities on the surface of the moon and eventually in the asteroids.”
During the show, O’Neill showed a drawing of a rotating, half-mile-long cylinder and space colony he called “Model 1” built from 98% lunar materials. But he also described much larger space colonies.
“Model 4 could be something as big as perhaps 5 to 10 miles in diameter, perhaps as much as 20 or 30 miles long, within the limits of available materials,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill said he got the idea in 1969 while teaching a physics course to 320 college freshman. He pulled aside a handful of the top students in the class, then, together, they came up with the concept.
After O’Neill spoke, Asimov pointed out that it’s much easier to move raw building materials off of the moon than Earth, since the moon has a much weaker gravity field.
Hayes then asked Asimov if the author – in his then 158 works of science fiction – had ever anticipated building such colonies in space.
That’s when Asimov responded with his “legendary” line.
“Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon – so have a hundred other science fiction writers,” Asimov said.
“The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the Asteroid Belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the Earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.”