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LOS ANGELES — I wanted to start out talking with Jeff Bezos tonight about his vision for settling outer space, but the billionaire founder of Amazon and Blue Origin had other plans.
When I asked my first question at a fireside chat, set up during an awards banquet here at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference, Bezos stopped me short.
“Before I answer that question, I want to do one small thing,” he told me. “Does anybody here in this audience watch a TV show called ‘The Expanse’?”
Wild applause followed — in part because the science-fiction TV series is tailor-made for the space crowd, and in part because cast members and the show runner for “The Expanse” were sitting out in the audience. They came to the dinner after doing their own panel presentation about the science behind the show.
When NBC Universal’s Syfy network announced this month that the show would be canceled after the current third season, that set off a worldwide fan campaign to #SaveTheExpanse. It also set off speculation that Amazon Studios might pick up the show.
Bezos ended that speculation tonight, on the stage that I shared with him.
“I was talking to the cast … right before dinner started,” Bezos said. “I was telling them we were working hard at Amazon to save ‘The Expanse,’ but it wasn’t a done deal yet. And during dinner, 10 minutes ago, I just got word that ‘The Expanse’ is saved.”
Even wilder applause followed.
“The Rocinante is safe,” Bezos added, referring to the fictional spaceship that’s as much a focus of the series as the Starship Enterprise is the focus for “Star Trek.”
— Cas Anvar (@Casanvar) May 26, 2018
— Action Scientist (@geoffnotkin) May 26, 2018
Bezos said that Season 4 will be an Amazon Prime Original series.
“The show is extraordinary, and these guys are unbelievably talented, so I’m glad you’re going to get to continue,” he said.
“We love you, Jeff,” someone in the audience called back.
Bezos told me he was “absolutely” a fan of “The Expanse” and the book series on which the TV show is based, which was penned by James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym for the books’ co-authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).
The saga traces the course of interplanetary conflicts involving Earth, Mars and the downtrodden “Belters” who live and work in the solar system’s main asteroid belt and beyond.
Bezos said his yen for science fiction goes back to the summers he spent in a small South Texas town called Cotulla during his childhood. One local resident donated hundreds of sci-fi classics to the town’s library, and the young Bezos spent several years working his way through the collection.
“Today I continue with my science-fiction reading habit, and find it very mind-expanding,” he said. “It always makes me think.”
That may be one reason for Amazon Studios’ involvement in a broad range of science-fiction adaptations, including Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” and an anthology series called “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams”; Iain M. Banks’ Culture series; Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”; and Larry Niven’s Ringworld series.
And now “The Expanse.”
After making his surprise announcement, Bezos went on to more space-minded subjects — including the inspiration he drew from physicist and space settlement advocate Gerard O’Neill, who taught at Princeton University during Bezos’ college days there.
The main reason for Bezos’ appearance at the conference was to pick up the National Space Society’s Gerard K. O’Neill Memorial Award for Space Settlement Advocacy, which was given to him by the physicist’s widow, Tasha O’Neill.
Bezos has fully embraced Gerard O’Neill’s vision of having millions of people living and working in space. That’s what led the Amazon founder to start up his Blue Origin space venture in 2000.
Tonight Bezos revealed that Blue Origin already has purchased the oceangoing ship that will serve as a floating landing pad for New Glenn boosters. “We’re retrofitting it now,” he said.
Bezos also voiced support for the Trump administration’s plan to establish an outpost on the moon.
“I’m a big fan,” he said. “I don’t like to skip steps, and I’ve always thought that this idea of going to Mars without building a permanent base on the moon … I believe it would end the same way Apollo did, where we would do it, there’d be a ticker-tape parade, and then 50 years of nothing. I hate that idea. … We’ve got to go back to the moon.”
— National Space Soc. (@nss) May 26, 2018
Blue Origin is already planning to build a lander that’ll be capable of landing 5 tons of payload on the lunar surface. “We’ll do that, even if NASA doesn’t do it. We’ll do it eventually, but we could do it a lot faster if we’re in a partnership,” Bezos said.
Eventually, there’ll also be a rocket even bigger than New Glenn, called New Armstrong, which will be optimized for deep-space missions.
In summary, Bezos laid out a vision for space settlement that’s grand enough for more than one fireside chat. But afterward, the news of the moment about “The Expanse” was what everyone wanted to talk about.
“It was so dramatic! … I thought I was looking for a job when I sat down here,” Cara Gee, the actress who plays the role of a Belter leader named Drummer on the show, told me when I headed over to the cast’s dinner table.
“There’s so much more story to tell,” she said. “We know where the books are going, but as we know from these first three seasons, anything can shift.”
Wes Chatham, who portrays a steely-eyed mechanic named Amos Burton on the show, said he’s become a fan of space meetings like the National Space Society’s annual gathering.
“Being a part of the show has really awakened me to this,” he told me.
Tonight’s announcement was just as sweet to Vincent Buyssens, a Belgian fan who helped organize the #SaveTheExpanse campaign.
“You can say the mission is accomplished,” he said.
That sentiment was seconded by Alcon Entertainment, which produced the show and will now be moving it from Syfy to Amazon Prime. In a statement, Alcon’s co-founders and co-CEOs, Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson, said they “couldn’t be more excited”:
“We are deeply grateful that Jeff Bezos, Jen Salke, and their team at Amazon have shown such faith in our show. We also want to thank Laura Lancaster, head of Alcon Television for her tireless efforts. We are fully aware that this wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the staggering outpouring of support from the most creative, hardest-working sci-fi fans around the world. From reddit campaigns to airplanes, we say thank you. It worked!”