After more than 40 years of putzing around low Earth orbit, everyone is suddenly in a rush to go back to the moon. Two weeks ago, NASA announced that it’s considering launching humans into lunar orbit as soon as 2019. This week, SpaceX unveiled a plan to send a Crew Dragon spacecraft holding two private citizens around the moon in 2018. And now Jeff Bezos wants in on the action.
In an exclusive with the (Bezos-owned) Washington Post, the (Bezos-owned) private space company Blue Origin detailed its plans to set up a cargo delivery route to the moon—much like (Bezos-owed) Amazon.com. The proposal has reportedly been sent to NASA and President Trump’s transition team, several members of which have advocated a human return to the moon.
Although the details of the proposal have not been released to the public, here’s what we can glean from the WaPo article:
- Blue Origin wants to develop a lunar lander to ferry cargo (but not people) to and from the moon. The lander might include technology similar to that used by the company to land its New Shepard rocket.
- The company hopes to land their Blue Moon vehicle near Shackleton crater. The edge of the crater is awash in near-permanent sunlight (great for solar panels), while its dark pit may be full of water ice, which could come in handy for supporting a human settlement on the moon. Plus, water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen—a.k.a. rocket fuel. So it’s pretty much prime real estate for an outfit like this.
- The lunar delivery equipment could be ready as soon as 2020, at least according to Blue Origin’s estimates.
- The Blue Moon capsule could launch on a variety of rockets, including NASA’s SLS, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V, and the New Glenn rocket that Blue Origin is developing. (Presumably, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy would also be capable of carrying it into space, if Blue Origin and SpaceX ever decide to cooperate instead of compete.)
- Although Bezos is planning to invest some of his own money in the venture, he’ll need funding and help from NASA.
Realistically, establishing a working settlement on the moon is going to take longer than three years. NASA and others are still working out a radiation-resistant housing solution to keep astronauts safe outside of Earth’s protective atmosphere. But Bezos may envision using Blue Moon to deliver the essentials to kickstart such a settlement once plans are underway.
SpaceX, too, could be capable of landing cargo on the moon. Both companies have launched their rockets into space and then brought their boosters back for controlled landings here on Earth. SpaceX has gone a few steps further, launching its rockets further and faster, and the Crew Dragon capsule has already demonstrated its ability to land by firing its thrusters. NASA has already promised to help SpaceX on a Mars mission in exchange for data about this propulsive landing technology.
Currently, SpaceX seems to have its sights set on Mars, rather than the moon. But if CEO Elon Musk starts to look a little closer to home—as he did in this week’s announcement—Blue Origin’s lunar concept may not go entirely unchallenged. After all, Musk is going to need some way to finance his expensive dream of colonizing Mars.