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Blue Origin Boss Jeff Bezos Lays Out His Plan for Space

By Rich Smith - Mar 6, 2017 at 5:13PM

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Space tourism, orbital manufacturing, and, one day, a colony on the Moon.

"It's time for America to go back to the Moon, and this time to stay. We can do it. It's a difficult but worthy objective."

-- founder, Blue Origin owner, and The Washington Post savior Jeff Bezos (AMZN 3.15%) CEO Jeff Bezos is on a winning streak.

Shares of the internet retailer that Bezos founded are up more than 70% off their lows of last February. At the same time, Bezos' pioneering space launch company, Blue Origin, is also doing well. Last June, Blue Origin and Bezos won the prestigious Heinlein Prize for "progress in commercial space activities that advances [the] dream of humanity's future in space." Last week, Bezos picked up another award, this time from Aviation Week, which declared Blue Origin its 60th Annual Space Laureate.

At the acceptance dinner for the latter award, Bezos let slip some surprising revelations. In the space of less than 15 minutes, he laid out for Aviation aficionados his latest plans for space exploration -- and I'll bet a lot of what he had to say will surprise you. Here are a few of the highlights.

Jeff Bezos stands by a Blue Origin rocket.

Jeff Bezos dreams of package deliveries to space. Image source: Blue Origin.

Humans return to space

In the nearest term, Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital rocket, powered by the liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen BE-3 engine that it built in-house, is preparing to carry human tourists to the edge of space. Flight safety tests are ongoing, and if the company holds true to its plans, paying passengers could begin visiting space aboard New Shepard as soon as next year.

Last year, Blue Origin broke ground on a massive new rocket factory in Florida, which will build the rockets to take them there.

...and to the Moon

But Earth orbit is just the beginning. In an "exclusive" report the day of the Aviation Week award, The Washington Post (also owned by Bezos) reported that Bezos wants to create an "Amazon-like shipment service for the moon that would deliver gear for experiments, cargo and habitats by mid-2020."

Bezos expanded on the idea at the awards dinner, saying Blue Origin wants to "partner with NASA" on this service, with an eye to eventually establishing a permanent human settlement on the Moon. A white paper on the subject (reviewed by the Post) confirms that this is not an idea that originated at NASA, but rather a project Blue Origin is urging NASA to adopt -- and offering to help out with, and help fund, if NASA is amenable.

Getting to the Moon could be done with Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket, now under development. Alternatively, says Bezos, "our architecture can fly on top of SLS" that Boeing (BA 2.28%) and Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.83%) are building for NASA, "or it can fly on top of the [smaller] Atlas 551 and deliver a more modest payload to the surface of the Moon."

Either way, Blue Origin believes it can have a "Blue Moon" lander (based on New Shepard's vertical-landing technology) ready and able to begin moon landings as early as July 2020.

Incidentally, Bezos argues that such a lunar settlement is a necessary precursor to the manned Mars mission that NASA is planning to conduct circa 2034: "I think that if you go to the Moon first and make the Moon your home, then you can get to Mars more easily."

Beyond 2020

And what comes after that? Like his competitor Elon Musk at SpaceX, Bezos believes that reusability "is a key" to commercializing space. As Bezos explains, "The reason that Amazon has succeeded is ... because so many thousands of start-up companies can participate. That's because the cost of [participating in the internet economy] is very low." But now, Bezos wants  to use Blue Origin to do to space exploration what he's already done to package delivery with Amazon.

The trouble with space travel, Bezos explains, is that "the cost of admission ... is quite high.... So very few experiments get done." The cost of the fuel needed to reach orbit (or even the Moon) is "trivially small," says Bezos -- about $0.10 per pound, or a few hundred thousand dollars per launch. The real reason space is so expensive, therefore, is that the spacecraft that burns the fuel is an expensive piece of hardware that's thrown away after every mission.

Like Musk at SpaceX, Bezos believes that developing reusable spacecraft that can launch and land -- on Earth, on the Moon, or elsewhere -- will permit companies to cut out the cost of expendable spacecraft, and pay mainly for the "trivial" cost of fuel when traveling to space. This will lower the cost of space launches, and permit more start-up companies to launch cheaper things, and experiment with space travel.

Made in space

And Bezos believes this is essential. Laying out the math, he suggests one take the current energy usage on Earth, and grow it just a few percentage points per year to account for population growth and rising standards of living. In just a few hundred years, says Bezos, the entire land surface of the Earth will need to be covered in solar panels to meet our energy needs.

Because this is obviously impractical, Bezos believes that energy-intensive manufacturing will ultimately need to be conducted in space, where resources are abundant and solar power is available 24/7, with no clouds or weather to muck up the process. (NASA may agree. Already, it's cooperating with Made in Space to prototype and test systems for additive manufacturing -- aka 3D printing -- in orbit, including aboard the International Space Station.)

Fifty-plus years from now, says Bezos, Earth will be "zoned residential and light industrial," and essentially all of our heavy manufacturing will be done in space.

Bezos believes this so-called "Great Inversion" is the future for Mankind. And with New Shepard, New Glenn, and soon Blue Moon, he's helping to make it so.

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