Sen. John Glenn is shown at the Ohio State University Union building in Columbus, Ohio, in February 2012. (BILL INGALLS/NASA)
Days before he died Thursday at age 95, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, wrote a letter to another space enthusiast-Jeff Bezos-who has said watching the moon landing at age 5 was a seminal moment and one of the reasons he founded his space company, Blue Origin.
In the letter, which was presented to Bezos at an awards ceremony Thursday evening as part of the Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Awards, Glenn wrote that in 1962, when he took his historic flight, "you were still two years from being born." When Glenn returned to space in 1998 on a space shuttle mission at age 77, "you were already driven by a vision of space travel accessible not only to highly trained pilots and engineers and scientists, but to all of us," he wrote.
(Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, owns The Washington Post.)
The letter, dated Nov. 28, was a tribute to Bezos and to Blue Origin, which had recently achieved several significant milestones-launching and landing a suborbital booster five times. But coming just days before Glenn’s death, the letter also serves as a bridge from the halcyon days of NASA’s manned space program, Glenn’s era of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, to the next giant leap, a time Bezos has called a new "golden age of space exploration."
In addition to Blue Origin, Richard Branson and Elon Musk have poured their immense wealth into their space ventures with the goal of ending governments’ long held monopoly on space. They are making a bold bet that they are paving the way for a viable commercial space industry, one that follows the birth of commercial aviation a century ago.
Bezos’ approach has been to move methodically-"Slow is smooth and smooth is fast" is one of his favorite sayings-while following in NASA’s steps: flying first to suborbital space, then to orbit and then possibly to the moon, or beyond, toward a goal of having "millions of people living and working in space." His suborbital booster is known as New Shepard, named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space. Bezos hopes to fly paying passengers on trips similar to Shepard’s starting in 2018.
The next goal is an orbital flight, and Blue Origin is building a rocket named New Glenn that is expected to launch by the end of the decade.
In his letter, Glenn said he was "deeply touched" that the rocket was named after him. "As the original Glenn, I can tell you I see the day coming when people will board spacecraft the same way millions of us now board jetliners," he wrote. "When that happens, it will be largely because of your epic achievements this year."
Bezos’ vision for space resembles those laid out decades ago by futurists such as Dandridge Coal and Gerard O’Neill, a Princeton professor who described his plans for space colonies in a book titled, "The High Frontier." Instead of just colonizing the moon or Mars, Bezos has said he’s more interested in, as O’Neill wrote, spreading not to any specific planetary body but to "somewhere else entirely."
In the company’s name Blue represents Earth, "the pale blue dot," and Origin is where humanity began.
"I want to see a gigantic, dynamic, entrepreneurial explosion in space," Bezos said at the Arthur C. Clark Foundation awards ceremony last month. Lowering the cost of access to space by building reusable rockets and a transportation infrastructure to the stars is one of the main goals of his life.
"If I could say the thing that Blue Origin did was we put in place the heavy lifting infrastructure that allowed the next generation to have this dynamism, this entrepreneurial explosion in space and unleash this creativity, I would be a very happy 80-year-old," he said.
Before then, though, Bezos has indicated where he might be headed next. His next rocket would be named New Armstrong, after Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.
In an interview earlier this year, Carol Armstrong said that her late husband would have been honored, and that she is rooting for Bezos to continue Armstrong’s legacy.
"I know Jeff, and I really have a lot of respect for him," she said. "I’m very glad he’s doing that."