A little less than half a century ago, a pair of NASA astronauts packed up their geological samples after three days of roving and returned to Earth in the Apollo 17 lunar module. It was the last time that a human walked on the moon.
Now the world’s wealthiest man, Amazon.com Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos, and the other company he founded, Blue Origin LLC, want to chart the next chapter in humanity’s exploration of its tiny orbiting sibling. At a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Thursday afternoon, Bezos made his case for going back to the moon and showed off his private space company’s lunar lander.
“It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay,” Bezos said.
On stage at the event, Bezos dropped the curtain behind him to reveal Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander. The craft features a large internal spherical fuel tank and sits atop four landing pads. It’s powered by liquid hydrogen, in part so it can be refuel from ice water on the moon’s poles. Hydrogen fuel cells will power the device through the lunar night.
“This is an incredible vehicle,” Bezos said, “and it’s going to the moon.”
Bezos also showed off a new BE-7 engine, a high-performance liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine that powers the lander’s six minute descent. After it lands, Blue Moon will deploy a small rover. Bezos also displayed a photo of a version of the lander that can accommodate astronauts, and said he hopes missions can commence by 2024.
Blue Origin has been working on Blue Moon since at least 2017. Last October, the company signed an agreement with NASA to develop medium to large commercial lander systems for the lunar surface. In exchange for $50,000 payment from Blue, NASA agreed to share technical analysis and information on potential lunar landing sites.
In a March speech, Vice President Mike Pence called for a return to the moon by 2024 and said the Trump administration had directed NASA to “accomplish this goal by any means necessary.”
Bezos has been at odds with President Donald Trump over a number of issues related to Amazon. But he said of the Trump administration’s timetable to return to the moon: “I love this. It’s the right thing to do.”
The moon has always been central to Bezos’s space-faring dreams, as well as the vision of his former professor, the late Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill. O’Neill, an iconoclast who passed away in 1992, envisioned a future with millions of humans living in space inside giant orbiting space cylinders, growing crops and harnessing the energy of the sun. The physicist theorized that the moon, a repository of raw materials and free of the atmosphere and punitive gravitational forces of the Earth, could be the staging ground to construct and economically launch such habitats.
This focus on the moon as the most effective way to start colonizing space sets Bezos apart from fellow space-faring tech billionaire Elon Musk, who sees colonizing Mars as humanity’s best “Plan B.” Bezos dubbed that kind of thinking to “planet chauvinism.” His pitch for a lunar landing even included a jab at those prefer to aim for Mars. “Round-trip on the order of years,” read one slide with an image of the red planet. “No real-time communication.”
Blue Origin’s mascot is a tortoise, and true to form, the company’s progress has been notoriously slower than at Musk’s SpaceX.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets have completed over 70 missions, sending satellites into orbit and ferrying supplies to the International Space Station. Blue’s two-stage orbital rocket, dubbed New Glenn, isn’t scheduled for launch until 2021. It’s first stage, Bezos said, is designed to be reused 25 times. A much smaller, reusable rocket, New Shepard, is designed to take six paying tourists to the edge of space for a few minutes of weightlessness. Those missions, Bezos said, are due to start later this year.
Blue Origin invited a few dozen kids, who Bezos said were inaugural members of a new “Club for the Future,” meant to “inspire young people to build the future of life in space.”
“The kids here and their kids and grandchildren will build these colonies. My generation’s job is to build the infrastructure so they will be able to. We are going to build a road to space,” Bezos told the audience. “And then amazing things will happen. Then you’ll see entrepreneurial creativity. Then you’ll see space entrepreneurs start companies in their dorm rooms. That can’t happen today.”