It was an undoubtedly savvy public relations move for the embattled company, which has recently come under fire for harboring what current and former employees allege, in an essay, is a toxic culture “that ignores the plight of our planet, turns a blind eye to sexism, is not sufficiently attuned to safety concerns, and silences those who seek to correct wrongs.”
In fact, as a PR stunt, it’s rivaled only by Blue Origin’s first foray to the cosmos. That found Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviation pioneer who was supposed to be one of the first women in space back in 1961, accompanying Bezos and his brother, Mark, into space. In addition to the “Star Trek” tie-in, the 90-year-old Shatner became the oldest person ever to exit Earth’s atmosphere, a fact that’s basically catnip for headline-seeking journalists.
Undergirding the PR move, though, might be a personal interest. Bezos has a genuine interest in the “Star Trek” series, which he discusses ad nauseam in interviews and which inspired the name of his dog, Kamala (you know, the Kriosian empathic metamorph).
But when did this love affair begin? What else has the show inspired in his life?
We dove into these questions. But first, repeat after us: Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
How did Bezos become interested in space?
Bezos fell in love with the universe before he fell in love with “Star Trek.” As a boy, he spent summers in Texas with his grandfather, a former Atomic Energy Commission engineer. The two watched space launches together and shared a love of science fiction.
“ ‘Star Trek’ is the easiest thing to glom on to, but it was much more than that,” biographer Brad Stone said in an interview.
When he graduated from high school, Bezos ended his valedictorian speech with the words “Space: the final frontier. Meet me there.”
As a student at Princeton, Bezos juggled the pop culture of “Star Trek” with the more serious work of professor and physicist Gerard O’Neill, who foresaw space stations orbiting Earth to house humans. After college, Bezos held “Star Trek: The Next Generation” viewing parties for his friends, Stone said.
Space, real or imagined, was always a big part of his life.
When did he fall in love with Star Trek?
The show premiered — with Shatner as Captain Kirk — in 1966, two years after Bezos was born. It would take the Amazon founder until the fourth grade to discover the Starship Enterprise. When he did, he became infatuated with the show in the way only a child can.
“When I was in fourth grade, me and my friends Dean and Kyle, who lived next door a couple of houses down, in Houston, Texas, would play ‘Star Trek’ almost every day,” Bezos told Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron at a 2016 event hosted by The Post. “And we’d fight over who’d get to be Captain Kirk, or Spock, and somebody used to play the computer, too. And it was actually very fun — we’d have little cardboard phasers and cardboard tricorders, you know. Good days.”
Echoes of the show can be found throughout his life. In addition to naming his dog Kamala, he named one of his holding companies Zefram LLC after Zefram Cochrane, the character who invented the warp drive.
He’s discussed how the show, and his general love of science fiction, helped inspire him to found a commercial spaceflight venture. But the show was also instrumental in creating the Amazon Echo.
“Our vision, in the long term, is it would become the ‘Star Trek’ computer. You could ask it anything, ask it to do things for you, ask it to find things for you, and it would be easy to converse with in a very natural way,” he told Baron. “The original inspiration was the ‘Star Trek’ computer.”
Who was his favorite character?
If you ask an Amazon’s Alexa who’s the best “Star Trek” captain, she will respond, “Of all the captains in all the galaxies, Captain Picard is my favorite.”
It’s no coincidence that Bezos feels the same way. He once gleefully shared that with a tickled Patrick Stewart, the actor who portrayed Picard.
He almost named Amazon “Makeitso.com,” after Picard’s catchphrase, Inc. reported.
In fact, “as time has passed, Bezos and Picard have physically converged. Like the interstellar explorer, portrayed by Patrick Stewart, Bezos shaved the remnant strands on his high-gloss pate and acquired a cast-iron physique,” Franklin Foer wrote in the Atlantic in 2019.
Bezos has not publicly explained why he admires Picard, but let’s venture a modest guess: Picard is a brilliant officer, historian and diplomat who plays a major role in the events of the 24th century. Even Spock was impressed: “He’s remarkably analytical and dispassionate, for a human. … There’s almost a Vulcan quality to the man.”
Is it true that he appeared in a ‘Star Trek’ movie?
Affirmative! Bezos played an alien Starfleet officer in the 2016 “Star Trek Beyond,” something he called “a bucket list” dream on Twitter.
“For years, I have been begging Paramount, which is owned by Viacom, to let me be in a ‘Star Trek’ movie,” he said that year. “I am very persistent, and you can imagine the poor director who got the call: ‘You have to let Jeff Bezos be in your ‘Star Trek’ movie. ”
Bezos said he was willing to be unrecognizable but wanted a speaking part — and one that was central to the plot so it didn’t end up on the cutting-room floor.
Bezos appears in the first five minutes of the film as an alien Starfleet officer stationed at Yorktown Starbase in 2263 who scans Kalara as she pleads for help from Commodore Paris and Captain Kirk. “Speak normally,” Bezos tells her. The cameo role required such extensive makeup that he could only drink through a straw.
“He was awesome,” director Justin Lin told the Associated Press. “It was like a president was visiting, you know? He had a big entourage! But it didn’t matter because he was so into it. He had to wait around all day because it was one day we were shooting like three different scenes and, it was also credit to Jeff because … he just nailed it every time.”
What other science fiction does he enjoy?
Although “Star Trek” is his most public sci-fi obsession, it’s far from his only one. As a child, Bezos would hoover up all the Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein books he could get his hands on. Nowadays, he makes sure to read newer genre writers such as Alastair Reynolds, Ernest Cline and Andy Weir.
Amazon Studios, the film and TV arm of his online empire, has focused on producing sci-fi. Most notably, the service saved “The Expanse,” a beloved show based on the novels of James S.A. Corey after it was canceled by its original network, Syfy.
“Something that [Bezos] wants to do is not just to have success in space — to make rockets that are reusable — but to reinvigorate interest in space,” The Post’s Christian Davenport said on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
According to Davenport’s reporting, Bezos decided to found Blue Origin after watching “October Sky,” a movie about NASA engineer Homer Hickam, with science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. But, by that point, he had long been interested in space.
As his high school girlfriend Ursula Werner once said: “Jeff started Amazon just to get enough money to do Blue Origin. He was intrigued by the idea of rocketing into outer space.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Bezos later said, when asked about her theory.
In any event, we know one thing for sure: Live long and profit.