Bezos Unveils His Blue Moon Lunar Lander

Bezos Unveils His Blue Moon Lunar Lander

Jeff Bezos pulled out all the stops today in unveiling his Blue Moon lunar lander.  In a ballroom at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. bedecked in illuminated wall coverings to simulate the night sky, Bezos stood in front of a huge blue curtain decorated with a feather and expounded upon his vision for the future of humanity.  It all begins now by building infrastructure in space to harness the solar system’s vast resources to preserve life on Earth, and the surface of the Moon is the place to start.

Bezos is globally known as the head of and the richest man in the world, but he also is the founder of Blue Origin, his space company whose logo is the feather and motto is Latin for step-by-step, ferociously.  His space headlines include test flights of the New Shepard suborbital rocket (the 11th was just last week) that will take people into space beginning this year, and the BE-4 liquid methane rocket engine that will be used for the United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.  But his space aspirations are much bigger than that.

The event today began with an exposition of his vision for the future of humanity.  Instead of sending millions of humans to live on Mars to preserve our species in the event of a planet-wide catastrophe, he wants to protect and preserve Earth — the best planet in the solar system hands down.

To that end, in the very long term future he imagines “rezoning” Earth for residential and light industry purposes only, moving heavy industry off Earth.  Eschewing the idea of humans living on the surface of the Moon, Mars or other planetary bodies, he embraces space colonies like those promoted decades ago by the late Gerard O’Neill and aptly referred to as O’Neill colonies.

That is a multi-generational undertaking and inspiring young people was part of the message today.  The audience included dozens of children from area schools who were introduced as the founding members of Bezos’s new Club for the Future whose goal is to inspire kids “to build the future of life in space.”

Jeff Bezos and the first members of his Club for the Future. Credit: Blue Origin

What is needed is infrastructure in space. Dramatically lowering the cost of access to space and using the Moon’s resources are the first steps.

He views Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket as one answer to reducing launch costs. It will be a low cost, reusable, highly reliable rocket with on-time launches capable of putting 45 Metric Tons (MT) into low Earth orbit or 13 MT into geostationary transfer orbit.  The first stage will land on a ship at sea and can be used 25 times.  The first launch is scheduled for 2021.

As for using lunar resources — the curtain rose and Bezos now was standing next to a full-size model of the Blue Moon lunar lander, a vehicle Blue Origin has been working on for three years.

Jeff Bezos next to a model of his Blue Moon lunar lander. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Moon will be able to put 3.6 MT of payloads of many varieties onto the lunar surface. With a stretched tank, that can grow to 6.5 MT and could accommodate a lunar ascent vehicle on top.  Or it could carry a pressurized human rover.

He did not say that Blue Origin is planning to build an ascent vehicle or rover, however.  Nor did he state that New Glenn would launch Blue Moon.  The launch mass of Blue Moon was not mentioned nor what New Glenn’s launch capability is to the Moon.

Blue Moon can land on a surface inclined as much as 15 degrees within 75 feet of its target.  It will be powered by a new engine that was also unveiled today, the liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen (LH/LOX) BE-7.  Most of the engine is 3D-printed and the first hot-fire test will take place this summer.  It will produce 10,000 pounds of thrust, has a specific impulse of 453 seconds, and is highly throttleable “which is critical for a lunar descent engine.”

The decision to use hydrogen was driven in part by his vision of refueling it with hydrogen extracted from the water thought to be trapped in the coldest parts of the lunar poles.  The hydrogen also can be used to power fuel cells, which will be used instead of solar arrays in order to survive the 14-day lunar night.

“This is an incredible vehicle and it’s going to the Moon.”

All of which is in alignment with Vice President Pence’s directive for NASA to return American astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.  Bezos’s reaction to the Moon 2024?  “I love this. It’s the right thing to do.”

“We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started three years ago.”

NASA’s current plan is to use its own Space Launch System and Orion capsule to send astronauts to a Gateway in lunar orbit.  From there, the astronauts would travel down to and back from the surface.  NASA originally planned to develop a transfer vehicle to get to a lower lunar orbit, then a descent vehicle to the surface, and an ascent vehicle to return to the transfer vehicle. It recently changed its mind, however, and now is asking the private sector for proposals for an integrated lunar lander that will incorporate all of those functions. A modified pre-solicitation notice under the NEXTStep-2 Broad Area Announcement (BAA) was issued on April 26.

Bezos’s description implied that Blue Moon will be launched directly to the lunar surface, so it is not clear how it fits into that architecture.  He also did not say that he is designing it to support crews, only that it could deliver an ascent vehicle or a pressurized rover.

In fact, there were many unanswered questions today, but the key is that NASA is looking for commercial partners to achieve the 2024 goal and Blue Origin has been working on a vehicle for three years that may help.

It is not the only company with ideas.  Lockheed Martin rolled out its own concept for a lunar lander at the Space Symposium last month and that one specifically is for crews.  More companies are expected to respond to NASA’s April 26 notice.

Achieving Pence’s goal of putting “the next man and the first woman” on the lunar surface by 2024 requires, at a minimum, a rocket, a crew capsule, a landing and ascent vehicle, and lunar spacesuits. NASA also wants a Gateway in lunar orbit. All of that will cost a lot of money and Congress is waiting for the Trump Administration to say how much that will be so it can decide whether to provide the funding or not.

Blue Moon might be part of that government-driven agenda, but the more interesting question is how far Bezos is willing to go on his own to achieve the grand vision he laid out today.

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