Bezos offers billions in incentives for NASA’s lunar lander contract

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Blue Origin, is offering to knock up to $2 billion off the cost of developing a lunar lander and to self-fund a pathfinder mission in exchange for a NASA contract.

The specific contract in question relates to developing a lunar lander for the Human Landing System program, which aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since the Apollo days. NASA announced in April 2020 that Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics were chosen for the initial phase of the contract, and it was thought that the competition would likely be whittled down to two final companies to build lunar landers. As TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington notes, it’s not uncommon for NASA to select two vendors, as it did when it awarded both Boeing and SpaceX contracts under its Commercial Crew program.

But a year later, in a move that veered from historical practice, NASA announced it had selected just one company for the contract: SpaceX. That company, headed by Elon Musk, proposed a $2.89 billion plan for its lander – around half of Blue Origin’s $5.99 billion proposal. Bezos is now offering to cut that price tag by $2 billion.

In a document obtained by The Washington Post explaining the rationale behind selecting a sole vendor for the HLS contract, NASA admits that it’s “current fiscal year budget did not support even a single [contract] award.” In response, SpaceX updated its payment schedule so it would fit “within NASA’s current budget.” That the agency has severe budgetary constraints is no secret: Congress approved just $850 million for the HLS program in fiscal year 2021, far short of the $3.4 billion NASA requested.

Enter Bezos’ open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, which addresses the budget issue directly. He writes that the proposed incentives would remedy “perceived near-term budgetary issues” with the Human Landing System Program, which caused NASA to select a single company instead of two.

“Instead of investing in two competing lunar landers as originally intended, the Agency chose to confer a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar head start to SpaceX,” Bezos says in the letter. “That decision broke the mold of NASA’s successful commercial space programs by putting an end to meaningful competition for years to come.”

This is not the first time that Blue Origin has publicly questioned NASA’s decision to go with just one vendor. The company, along with Dynetics, filed protests with the Government Accountability Office just one week after the award was announced. Blue Origin argued that the contract requirements did not give companies an ability to “meaningfully compete.” GAO must rule on the protest by August 4.

Blue Origin and Dynetics are not the only entities to support two contract awards. The Senate recently passed a bill that would, among other things, require NASA to select two companies for the HLS lander – and the extra funds to do so, SpaceNews reported. Not every lawmaker was happy about the inclusion of the extra funding, however: Senator Bernie Sanders called it a “Bezos bailout,” but was ultimately unsuccessful in getting the extra funding stripped from the bill.

“We stand ready to help NASA moderate its technical risks and solve its budgetary constraints and put the Artemis Program back on a more competitive, credible, and sustainable path,” Bezos said.

Peer-to-peer car rental startup Getaround fined nearly $1M by DC’s Attorney General

Getaround was fined nearly $1 million by the Washington D.C. Office of the Attorney General for operating without a license and other violations, part of a settlement of what the peer-to-peer car rental startup calls “politically motivated allegations.”

The AG’s office started investigating the company early last year, after it received reports of vehicle thefts of cars listed on the Getaround platform. The settlement, released Friday, requires the company to pay the city $950,000, in addition to implementing other changes, including paying restitution to customers whose vehicles were stolen or damaged while it was listed for rent on Getaround’s platform.

Getaround, the winner of TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield at Disrupt NYC in 2011, lets individual car owners rent their vehicles by the hour or day via its website and app. The site, much like competitor Turo or home rental analog Airbnb, mediates this exchange (and takes a cut off the top). The company’s attracted a lot of interest from investors, most recently raising a $140 million Series E that brought its total venture funding to $600 million.

The settlement is what’s known as an “assurance of voluntary compliance,” and it’s not an admission of guilt. The settlement document makes clear that Getaround denies it violated any consumer protection or tax laws.

“Gig economy companies must abide by the same rules as their brick-and-mortar counterparts,” Attorney General Karl Racine said in a statement. “They must provide clear and accurate information to consumers, especially about the safety of their services, and they must pay their fair share of taxes like everyone else does.”

The AG’s office claims that Getaround operated without a license in the district, misrepresented its service, and made “untrue or misleading representations” about the safety of its car rental services. As part of the settlement, the company must create a written policy for user complaints regarding vehicle damage or theft, including a way for users to report any issues. It also must clearly disclose limitations of its safety features, such as its “Enhanced Security” software feature, which Getaround says on its website can immobilize your car when it’s not being used. Getaround must also more clearly state the terms and conditions for insurance coverage.

The AG’s office also claimed that Getaround misled consumers by creating fake owner profiles for vehicles that it owned and operated. The company must now disclose its fleet cars clearly in listings.

A Getaround spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company “categorically disagrees” with the AG’s allegations.

“With regard to safety and security, as the Attorney General acknowledges, as soon as Getaround was notified of security issues affecting certain cars in the District, the company took immediate corrective action,” the spokesperson said. “As is its practice, Getaround will continue to compensate car owners who have filed valid claims for loss or damage. Finally, Getaround never disputed liability for the taxes it is paying pursuant to this settlement.  Getaround will continue to pay applicable taxes to the District and in every jurisdiction in which it operates.”

The company spokesperson went on to say that “while the Attorney General is focused on scoring political points, Getaround remains focused on connecting safe, convenient, and affordable cars with District residents who need them to live and work.”

Judge denies Wisk Aero’s request for preliminary injunction against Archer Aviation

Electric aviation startup Wisk Aero’s request for a preliminary injunction against rival Archer Aviation was denied by a federal judge Thursday, the latest in an ongoing legal battle over whether Archer stole trade secrets in developing its flagship Maker aircraft.

A full written opinion has not yet been published. In a tentative ruling filed earlier this week, Judge William Orrick said Wisk’s “evidence of misappropriation is too equivocal to warrant a preliminary injunction.” Wisk filed for the injunction in May; if it had been approved, it would have effectively put an immediate halt to Archer’s operations.

Wisk submitted to the court 52 trade secrets it alleges were stolen and used by Archer, and the injunction would have prevented Archer from using any of them until a final decision was issued in the suit. It’s an extraordinary request and it makes sense that Orrick would need to see more certain evidence of misappropriation.

“There are some arguable indications of misappropriation, but given how equivocal the evidence is, Wisk is not entitled to the extraordinary remedy of an injunction,” Orrick said in the tentative ruling. “Because the merits are so uncertain, Wisk has also not adequately shown irreparable injury based on misappropriation. And the balance of hardships favors Archer because, without solid evidence of misappropriation, an injunction would gravely threaten its business.”

Wisk says the judge’s decision on the injunction has no bearing on the outcome of the case “and does not exonerate Archer in the least.”

“We brought this lawsuit based on strong indications of theft and use of Wisk’s IP, and the initial limited evidence gathered through the court process to date only confirms our belief that Archer’s misappropriation of Wisk’s trade secrets is widespread and pervades Archer’s aircraft development,” Wisk continued. “Following today’s ruling, Wisk will be allowed to begin collecting evidence in earnest.”

Wisk was established in 2019 as a joint venture between Kitty Hawk and Boeing, but its history with electric aviation stretches back much further. The company was originally founded in 2010 as Levt, which eventually merged with sister company Kitty Hawk. Wisk says it (as Kitty Hawk) zeroed in on a fixed-wing, 12-rotor design in 2016. It’s this design that’s the centerpiece of its debut aircraft, Cora.

Archer, by contrast, is newer to the field. Much of Wisk’s original complaint, filed in April, is predicated on the speed with which Archer is bringing its air taxi service to market. Archer also recruited many former Wisk engineers — including former employee Jing Xue, whom Wisk says downloaded nearly 5,000 files before his departure from the company, which it alleges he handed over to Archer.

When he was cross-examined, Xue pled the Fifth Amendment, invoking his right to not self-incriminate, citing an ongoing federal investigation.

Archer says Wisk has not brought forward any substantive evidence of the central claim of the lawsuit: that Archer received and used Wisk trade secrets. Wisk’s allegations are based on “conspiracy theories and outright misrepresentations,” Archer’s Deputy General Counsel Eric Lentell said.

“It is clear to us from Wisk’s actions in this case that after recognizing Archer’s momentum and pace of innovation, Wisk began abusing the judicial and criminal justice system in an attempt to slow us down to compensate for its own lack of success,” Archer co-founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein said.

The court will hold a scheduling conference on August 11, where the judge will outline next steps for the case. A date for the trial has not been set.

The case is filed in the California Northern District Court under case no. 3:2021cv02450.

Lucid Motors’ SPAC merger approved after executives issue plea to shareholders to vote

Shareholders approved Friday EV startup Lucid Motors’ merger with special purpose acquisition company Churchill Capital IV, after the companies extended the deadline by one day because not enough retail investors showed up to cast their vote.

The issue is unusual but could become more common as more companies eschew the traditional IPO path to public markets and instead merge with SPACs. 

The hiccup occurred on Thursday, when shareholders voted to approve all but one of the proposals as part of the merger — proposal two, which would revise the company’s charter so that Lucid could receive key financing. That proposal requires a higher number of votes than the others — and it must be approved for the merger to take place — so a lack of votes ended up halting the entire process.

The lack of shareholders was blamed on retail investors’ unfamiliarity with the SPAC process and, unbelievably, spam filters gone awry.

Churchill chairman Michael Klein raised the possibility that some of the emails sent to shareholders were accidentally sent to voters’ spam folders. While it may seem incredible that something as low-tech as a Gmail spam filter might interrupt a multibillion dollar business merger, it seems that may have occurred in this case.

“We simply need more votes,” Klein said on an investor call Thursday. Lucid Motors CEO Peter Rawlinson was also direct: “I need you to vote for proposal two.”

“We recognize that for many of you, this voting process may be new or not standard,” Klein continued. He later thanked the many individual shareholders but urged those “participating from the new platforms, the new apps,” to vote. “They may not necessarily be directing you clearly to the voting service.”

The number of amateur or so-called “retail traders” has exploded since the start of the pandemic, largely thanks to apps like Robinhood, which leverages gamification strategies to encourage users to buy and sell stocks from anywhere. The pinnacle of this phenomenon will likely be remembered by history in the explosive rise in prices of stocks for failing companies like GameStop and AMC entertainment, engineered by an army of retail traders on the subreddit r/wallstreetbets. Retail investors account for around 10% of the U.S. equity trading volume, according to a report from Morgan Stanley, down from a high of 15% last September.

But if the rise in the price of meme stocks shows us anything, it’s that retail traders are a powerful force. The Morgan Stanley report notes that “retail investors tend to prefer companies in sectors they are likely to be familiar with as consumers, such as Consumer Discretionary, Communication Services, and Technology.” This could be why the Churchill SPAC was high on many retail investors’ radars.

In a highly awarded post on the subreddit r/SPACs, a Reddit user urges new retail shareholders to participate in voting: “This is not normal. SPACs have never had to beg shareholders to act in their own best interest before.

You MUST vote. A non-vote does NOT count as a YES. A non-vote is just a non-vote.”

While Lucid’s merger hold-up is a very different scenario than that of meme stock trading, it’s yet another reminder that retail investors are continuing to shape markets.

Waymo to open offices in Pittsburgh, an AV tech hub

Waymo, Google’s former self-driving car project that’s now an independent business unit under Alphabet, is expanding its presence in the eastern U.S. The company said Thursday it would be opening offices in Pittsburgh, joining a growing suite of companies developing and testing autonomous vehicle technology in the Steel City.

The company will start by hiring around a dozen engineers, a source familiar with the move told TechCrunch, and they’ll co-locate in Google’s existing offices in the Bakery Square district. As of Thursday, only around three open positions for the Pittsburgh area were listed on Waymo’s website, but the company will be adding more roles soon.

Some of the new team will come from Pittsburgh-based RobotWits, a tech startup focused on autonomous vehicle decision-making. That includes RobotWits’ founder and CEO Maxim Likhachev, and other members of its engineering and technical team. While Waymo did not technically acquire the startup, it did acquire RobotWits’ IP rights, the source said.

There are no current plans to deploy the so-called Waymo Driver, its autonomous driving platform, in Pittsburgh, the source added. Instead, the new team will work on motion planning development, real-time route planning and developing Driver. Thus far, Driver has seen deployment in the Phoenix, Arizona metro area. Its Waymo Via trucking and cargo service will be deployed in a test run with trucking logistics company J.B. Hunt Transport Services in Texas.

AV tech rivals Aurora, Motional, Argo AI have already established offices in the city; combined with talent at Carnegie Melon University, the city has established itself as a bona fide hub for autonomous engineering development. Pittsburgh is also home to many smaller AV startups, including Locomation, which is working on autonomous trucks.

Waymo’s Pittsburgh location will join its network of offices in Mountain View, San Francisco, Phoenix, New York, Dallas, and Hyderabad, India.

Tesla, BHP ink supply deal for nickel ahead of demand surge

Tesla will secure nickel from the commodity production giant BHP, the automaker’s latest move to secure direct sources of raw materials that are projected to surge in demand before the decade is out.

BHP’s Nickel West division will supply an undisclosed amount of the mineral from its mines in Western Australia. The two companies also agreed to work together to increase battery supply chain sustainability and to identify ways to decrease carbon emissions from their respective operations using energy storage paired with renewable energy.

Nickel is a key mineral in lithium-ion batteries, and a cornerstone of Tesla’s next-gen battery chemistry. While many lithium-ion batteries have cathodes made from nickel, manganese and cobalt, Tesla is taking a different tack. At Tesla’s Battery Day 2020, Musk said the automaker would invest in a nickel-rich, cobalt-free cathode for some models, citing greater energy density.

Tesla also hasn’t been shy about its own intention to increase battery cell production in the coming decade, aiming to produce 100 gigawatt hours of batteries by 2022, to a staggering 3 terawatt hours per year by 2030.

To that end, the company is moving fast to secure purchase agreements with leading nickel producers. Earlier this year, the automaker announced a partnership with a nickel producer in the French Pacific territory New Caledonia. Just a few months later, Tesla chairperson Robyn Denhlm confirmed that the company was looking to purchase around $1 billion per year in battery minerals from Australia alone.

Musk has repeatedly urged miners to produce more nickel. On an investment call last July, he told producers, “Tesla will give you a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way.” At Battery Day, he reiterated his position: “In order to scale, we really need to make sure that we’re not constrained by total nickel availability,” he said. “I actually spoke with the CEOs of the biggest mining company in the world and said, ‘Please make more nickel, it’s very important.’”

But finding an environmentally friendly nickel source is a challenge. Some of that has to do with issues endemic to present-day recovery and smelting techniques; others are more directly manageable by mining companies. For example, nickel mining operations in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of the metal, have come under fire for their reliance on coal and their waste disposal techniques.

BHP claims its operation is one of the most sustainable in the world, and Tesla’s decision to partner with it could be seen as something of a confirmation of that fact. The commodity producer in February said up to 50% of the electricity to power one of its nickel refineries would come from solar energy resources.

The vast majority of the world’s nickel supply is currently consumed by the steel industry. While nickel demand in the EV and energy storage sectors is currently relatively small, the International Energy Agency estimates that will increase more than 4,000% over the next 20 years – from 81 metric tons in 2020 to 3,352 metric tons by 2040.

Nickel West has historically been a tiny fraction of BHP’s overall business, dwarfed by its iron ore, copper and petroleum businesses. The commodity producer tried to sell Nickel West a number of times since around 2015, but it appears to have changed its tune with the forecasted groundswell of demand from the EV and energy storage sectors.

Industry analysts Benchmark Minerals estimated the deal with Tesla could be worth up to 18,000 tons of nickel annually.

Rivian plans to install EV chargers in Tennessee’s 56 state parks

Rivian electric vehicle charging stations are coming to yet another state park system. The EV startup said it would install its so-called “waypoint” chargers at all of Tennessee’s 56 state parks, just four months after announcing a similar agreement with the state of Colorado.

It’s the next step in Rivian’s plans to build out its network of more than 10,000 Level 2 AC chargers by the end of 2023. Installing chargers at state parks and other far-flung locales is a key facet of Rivian’s brand strategy: to position itself as an eco-friendly automaker for the outdoorsy type regardless of whether they own a Rivian vehicle. The waypoint chargers will be open to the public and accessible to all electric vehicle brands with a J1772 plug.

As part of the agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Rivian will design and install the chargers at no cost, and cover all servicing, maintenance, and upgrades for 10 years. The automaker said it will also cover any needed utility upgrades associated with the charger installations – for example, improvements to electrical service panels or transformers.

Rivian could start installing chargers as early as this fall. The Level 2 chargers can provide up to 11.5 kilowatts of power. That roughly translates to adding up to 25 miles of range every hour for both the R1T pickup truck and the R1S SUV. While waiting hours for a battery refill isn’t ideal for chargers located along highways and busy thoroughfares, Rivian says these sites will allow drivers “to top up on miles while enjoying a day trip or an overnight campout.”

Charging will initially be provided at no cost, though the automaker noted that future costs could be dependent on how the state decides to recover electricity costs.

Rivian Waypoints are separate from the company’s so-called Adventure Network, its plan to build more than 3,500 DC fast chargers exclusively for Rivian customers. Those chargers will be able to provide up to 140 miles of range in around 20 minutes.

Rivian founder RJ Scaringe has been open about his desire to develop a charging network inclusive of hard-to-reach places – a notable difference from a company like Tesla, whose proprietary network of Superchargers is located in more conventional and even high-end places.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to create Rivian charging locations that aren’t on the interstate, that help draw you or enable you to go to places that normally are not the kinds of places that invite or welcome electric vehicles because of charging infrastructure,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with TechCrunch’s Kirsten Korosec. “We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how you can essentially create these curated drives where, depending on your point of interest, you can pick different paths. If you want to stop midway through the trip for a one-mile, two-mile or five-mile hike, you know, here’s a route that you want to take and here’s a charging location right next to it.”

Elon Musk says Tesla will ‘most likely’ accept Bitcoin again when it becomes more eco-friendly

Tesla will ‘most likely’ resume accepting bitcoin as a form of payment once the mining rate for the cryptocurrency reaches 50% renewables, CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday at a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Crypto Council for Innovation, remarks that are in line with statements he made last month on Twitter.

Tesla started accepting bitcoin as a form of payment in February, the same time that the company purchased a historic $1.5 billion in bitcoin — before reneging on its decision just three months later, citing environmental concerns.

Cryptocurrencies get a bad rap for energy usage because they do indeed use up an awful lot of energy, at least many of them do. Bitcoin and Ethereum, the space’s two biggest currencies, use a mechanism called proof-of-work to power their networks and mint new blocks of each currency. The “work” is solving complex cryptographic problems and miners do so by stringing together high-end graphics cards to tackle these problems. Major mining centers have thousands of GPUs running around the clock.

While Ethereum has already committed to transitioning away from proof-of-work to something called proof-of-stake, which vastly reduces energy usage, Bitcoin seems less likely to make this transition. So, becoming “eco-friendly” likely doesn’t mean making any major underlying changes to Bitcoin, but rather shifting what energy sources are powering those mining centers.

While Bitcoin’s global mining network does clearly lean on renewables, it’s pretty difficult to get exact insights on what the spread of renewables usage is given how, ahem, decentralized the grid is. What is clear is that it’s going to take some unprecedented transparency from the global network to even give Musk a starting point here to judge Bitcoin’s current or future “eco-friendliness,” and in all likelihood Musk will have a lot of wiggle room to make this decision based on anecdotal data whenever he wants.

Today’s comments come as no surprise: He tweeted in June, “When there’s confirmation of reasonable (~50%) clean energy usage by miners with positive future trend, Tesla will resume allowing Bitcoin transactions.”

His comments do give him plenty of wiggle room, however. “As long as there is a conscious effort to move bitcoin miners toward renewables then Tesla can support that,” he added later in the talk. A large portion of bitcoin mining was done in China, where cheap coal and hydropower made it slightly more economical; but Musk noted that some of these coal plants have been shut down (and a large portion of miners in China have started to migrate abroad, in response to mining crackdowns by the Chinese party).

It should also be noted that his concerns over bitcoin’s environmental impact have caused controversy in the bitcoin community, with some arguing that bitcoin receives an oversized amount of scrutiny relative to its actual energy consumption. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who also participated in the virtual panel, has actually argued that bitcoin can incentivize the transition to renewable energy. A white paper published by the Bitcoin Clean Energy Initiative, a program created by Square, argues that bitcoin mining could make renewables even cheaper and more economically feasible than they are today.

Musk’s comments, as ambiguous as they were, shows he still exerts considerable power over cryptocurrency markets. Bitcoin price fell below $30,000 on Monday, after hitting an all-time high of over $63,000 in April. But after the billionaire founder revealed more details about his and his companies’ holdings at the virtual panel, the price rebounded.

In addition to personal bitcoin holdings and Tesla’s bitcoin holdings, his aerospace company SpaceX also owns bitcoin. Musk added that he also personally owns ether and (of course) dogecoin. The price for all three cryptocurrencies rose after his comments.

Accion Systems raises $42 million in Series C to accelerate development of 4th-gen propulsion system

Space propulsion developer Accion Systems has closed its most significant funding round yet. The company raised $42 million in a Series C led by Tracker Capital, bringing its valuation to $83.5 million.

Along with the investment, Tracker Capital also acquired a majority stake in the company. This latest injection of capital will facilitate the development and manufacturing of the company’s fourth generation propulsion system, dubbed the tiled ionic liquid electrospray (TILE) system.

The TILE system uses electrical energy to push charge particles (ions) out its back to generate propulsion. While ion engines have been around for decades, Accion uses a liquid propellant, an ionic liquid salt, instead of gas. The liquid is inert and non-pressurized, meaning there’s no risk of explosion. It also results in a product that doesn’t need bulky components like ionization chambers, and an overall smaller and lighter weight system relative to the spacecraft – key considerations in space, where every gram of payload has a high price tag.

“It lets us build really, really small systems,” Accion co-founder Natalya Bailey explained to TechCrunch. “Instead of trying to take an existing ion engine the size of a Prius and shrink it down, we can start with very small systems because of this propellant.” And she does mean small – each thruster tile is about the size of a postage stamp.

The TILE system is also scalable and modular, meaning it could feasibly be used on anything from cubesats to propelling an interplanetary spacecraft, Accion CEO Peter Kant added in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “It’s one of the few occasions where the total addressable market and the actual addressable market that we can serve are pretty closely aligned and almost overlap,” he said.

The newest generation of the TILE system is the same size as its predecessors, but Accion is increasing the number of emitters on a given chip – emitters being the technology that actually shoots out the ions, generating the momentum – by almost tenfold. “We get more ions per area and that gives us a whole lot more thrust with the same amount of space,” Kant said.

Accion is looking to ship the first fourth-gen thruster systems in the middle to late summer of 2022.

The TILE system was developed by Accion co-founders Natalya Bailey and Louis Perna while the two were at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The tech generated a ton of interest from big aerospace companies, but they decided to found Accion in 2014 rather than sell. The company manufactures and assembles its product at its facility in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

The TILE system was onboard commercial spacecraft, one with Astra Digital and one with NanoAvionics, that went up on SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch at the end of June. Accion started by focusing on serving smaller spacecraft first, like cubesats, but Bailey said that was just the beginning.

“We’re going after that segment initially, and then intending to reinvest our learnings in building larger and larger systems that eventually can do big geostationary satellites and interplanetary missions and so on. The systems that went up on the most recent launcher [is] probably good for a satellite up to about 50 kilograms [. . .] For us, it’s on the smaller end of where we intend to go.”

Bezos and crew host a giddy press conference after Blue Origin’s inaugural crewed launch

Jeff Bezos was so triumphant he was practically glowing at a press conference following the Blue Origin’s first crewed mission to space, 21 years after he founded the company in 2000. The billionaire talked about the future of the company and his role in it, and then casually gave away a couple hundred million dollars.

Bezos was one of four that rode in the RSS First Step capsule; the others were his financier brother, Mark; aviation legend and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk; and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the son of the second-highest bidder on the Blue Origin seat auction. (The $28 million dollar winner postponed his seat due to scheduling conflicts.)

The company now joins a very tiny circle of companies that have sent private citizens to space, in the biggest boost yet for the nascent space tourism industry. Tuesday also marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the next step in space travel paying homage to the very first.

The press conference opened with the grinning foursome being pinned with astronaut “wings,” a badge traditionally granted to those that have gone to space. “I’m so happy,” said Bezos at the press conference, donning the same cream cowboy hat he wore moments after emerging from the capsule a little over two hours earlier.

Bezos also thanked the city of Van Horn, acknowledging Blue Origin has made “a dent in it,” and followed by thanking every Amazon employee, plus its millions of customers: “Seriously, you paid for this.”

They also showed a brief video of the four crew members cavorting in four minutes of microgravity, including footage of the crew members catching floating Skittles in their mouths.

This is the second suborbital mission crewed entirely by private citizens this month alone, a first in history. The first was accomplished by Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, a rocket-powered spaceplane, on July 11; its founder, billionaire Richard Branson, was aboard, which helped foment a truly petty spat between the two ultrawealthy founders. That aside, the two flights have helped make space tourism more of a reality than ever before.

The flight will also likely be a boost for Blue Origin’s commercial heavy-lift rocket launch arm, which for the moment is largely occupied by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The same technologies that are used to perfect New Shepard’s reusability could come in handy for the development of New Glenn, the company’s massive orbital launch. Bezos said in February that the company was pushing the inaugural launch of New Glenn from late 2021 to the latter quarter of 2022.

Jeff Bezos speaks into a mic at the blue origin press conference.

Image Credits: Blue Origin / YouTube

“The fact of the matter is, the architecture and the technology we’ve chosen is complete overkill” for space tourism, Bezos said. Instead, Blue Origin chose it “because it scales [ … ]  the whole point of this is to get practice” for larger and heavier missions.

On why Blue Origin chose liquid fuel, he reiterated that it’s practice for future launches. “Every time we fly this tourism mission, we practice flying the second stage of New Glenn.”

In December 2020, NASA added Blue Origin to its roster of space companies eligible to compete for contracts under its Launch Services II program. While it doesn’t guarantee that New Glenn or any other Blue Origin rocket would be awarded a launch contract, it’s the first step to getting there.

Jeff Bezos confirmed that Blue Origin will fly two additional crewed launches this year alone, but it has yet to announce the price per seat. “We want the cadence to be very high [ … ] We’re approaching $100 million in private sales already.” When asked how to get the cost per seat down, Bezos said the space tourism industry would follow the trajectory of commercial space travel, now widely used by millions of travelers each year.

At the end of the conference, Bezos announced he was starting a $100 million Courage and Civility Award, with CNN contributor Van Jones and Michelin star chef José Andrés as the first two recipients. The winner will give that money away to the charities of their choice. The award is for people who apparently demonstrate civility and resist ad hominem attacks. Reading between the lines (frankly, you don’t even really have to do that) it seems like a commentary on contemporary political discourse, especially the emphasis on civility in disagreement.

Looking to the future, the Amazon founder said he would split his time between Blue Origin and the Bezos Earth Fund, a $10 billion investment fund focused on climate change.

“This is not about escaping Earth. The whole point is, this is the only good planet in the solar system,” Bezos said. “We have to take care of it.”

Rewatch the press conference here: