What Jeff Bezos should have learnt from Neil Armstrong

21 July 2021

8:59 AM

21 July 2021

8:59 AM

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos joined the billionaire space race today in his suitably phallic looking New Shepard rocket. Bezos successfully travelled to just beyond the Karman Line: the official boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and the rest of the universe.

So what sage words did the billionaire have for the rest of us as he looked out of the window at a sight that only 556 other humans have had the privilege to witness? A philosophical thought perhaps? A rumination on our planet’s beauty or fragility? Or maybe an assertion of mankind’s technical prowess? Alas, we were given none of this. According to the entrepreneur, as he descended on a rocket-powered air cloud, it was the ‘Best. Day. Ever.’

Now, Bezos could be forgiven for being rendered slightly speechless at the experience. There are relatively few things money can’t buy but, until this year, jetting off into space was one of them.

And yet, after seven years of preparation at Blue Origin, I can’t have been the only one who was hoping that Bezos might have furnished those of us watching on the ground with a few more insights. Sadly, Bezos was reduced to the sort of banalities that you’d find in an over-excited social media post. His only remark while floating above the world was that he was ‘happy, happy, happy.’ You can almost picture the accompanying emojis.

GettyImages-1329693390.jpg(Getty images)

The famously taciturn Neil Armstrong was wise enough to give considerable thought to what he was going to say as he stepped onto the moon. He may have been an engineer but he certainly didn’t let the poetry of the moment pass. History would have been made that day regardless of what he uttered, but it was his words that helped make the moon walk iconic.

It was surprising that Bezos didn’t take a leaf out of Armstrong’s book – or learn from fellow billionaire astronaut Richard Branson, whose eloquent space speech a fortnight earlier succinctly conveyed to those watching what it must feel like to have your boyish ambitions of space travel realised:

‘I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars,’ he told us. ‘Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.’

Trite, yes. But delivered with absolute poise and conviction.

Perhaps, by pipping him to the post, Branson stole Bezos’s thunder and the Amazon-founder felt he had nothing more to add. The faulty audio link on board the New Shepard certainly didn’t help – those watching the launch live could only catch snippets of reactions. We heard almost nothing from Wally Funk – the famous octogenarian whose NASA space programme was cancelled in the 60s, but who has always dreamed of going to space. And that was a shame. Bezos had clearly given careful thought to his co-passengers, yet their reactions were either as obsolete as his own or left unrecorded.

Contrast this again with Branson’s Virgin Galactic Flight: video footage showed the team of astronauts bouncing off the walls of the plane with weightlessness, all visibly beside themselves with excitement. And Branson – being the true showman that he is – finished his speech by unbuckling his own seat belt and floating off with them. He may not have gone as far into space as Bezos but he has won the PR race hands down.

At the post-flight press conference Jeff Bezos managed to touch on some more profound ideas about what space, and indeed Blue Origin, could be used for going forward. He talked briefly about Blue Origin being about more than tourism: in time, it could move all heavy industry into space so that the earth could be protected. But, when asked to describe his own flight, he reverted back to platitudes. Eventually he remarked:

‘Maybe we need to send a poet up, someone who will be better at describing it.’

After today’s efforts, it’s hard not to disagree.

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