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Jeff Bezos Builds a Moon Ship

By Rich Smith - May 19, 2019 at 7:13AM

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For now, it's only a model. But in five years, the Amazon CEO says, he can land it on the lunar surface.

Two years ago, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos -- yeah, the guy who owns Amazon.com (AMZN 1.36%) -- made NASA a promise: If it wants to establish a moon base, Blue Origin would partner with the space agency and build it a rocket -- and a moon lander -- to help build that base.

The rocket in question is New Glenn, currently under development, with plans to become one of the most powerful rockets on earth. And the lander? That would be Blue Moon.

Jeff Bezos gesturing to model of Blue Moon moon lander

Jeff Bezos with a model of the Blue Moon lunar lander. Image source: Blue Origin.

Introducing Blue Moon

Although Blue Moon was originally envisioned as a cargo vessel capable of delivering "gear for experiments, cargo, and habitats by mid-2020," Bezos in 2017 promised that it would be a launcher-agnostic spacecraft that could fly on top of its own New Glenn rocket, or on NASA's new Space Launch System (also still under development), or even atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 551. (There was no mention of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, you will note.)

But when NASA announced earlier this year that it is soliciting proposals to build its Human Landing System to put astronauts on the moon, Bezos seems to have had an epiphany: Blue Moon could do that, too.

Last week, at a closed-door presentation in Washington, Bezos pulled back the curtain on a mock-up of Blue Moon, revealing it to be a fuel-cell-powered spacecraft capable of delivering between 3.6 and 6.5 metric tons of payload (up to and including moon buggies ) to the lunar surface. Blue Moon will use hydrogen and oxygen to fuel a new, 3D-printed BE-7 engine (also brand new, and as-yet untested) to travel from lunar orbit to the surface. The first version of Blue Moon will be robotic, but a later, larger version should be human-rated to carry astronauts to the moon.

NASA and Blue Origin, together at last?

To refresh your memory, NASA's latest moon project comprises three main stages: By 2024, the agency wants to have a "lunar descent element" -- a moon lander -- docked with a "lunar gateway" space station in orbit around the moon. By 2026, it wants to add a lunar ascent element built and delivered, and test both elements in an unmanned mission to land on, and return from, the lunar surface.

Finally, in 2028, NASA plans to repeat this feat with astronauts aboard, accomplishing the first manned moon landing in more than a half-century!

This schedule recently got jumbled  when in March, Vice President Pence stated that a 2028 target date was "just not good enough," and that official U.S. policy is now to return astronauts to the moon by 2024. Not everyone is convinced that five years is enough time to do what NASA said just three months ago it would need nearly a decade to accomplish. But Bezos, who has been pouring $1 billion a year of his wealth into Blue Origin through sales of Amazon.com stock, says that because he began development of Blue Moon three years ago, a 2024 landing is in fact doable by him.

What comes next

And yet, whether we're talking about 2028, 2026, or 2024 -- whatever the date -- NASA first needs to build the equipment to make it happen. Space companies large and small, ranging from Boeing and Lockheed to Sierra Nevada to SpaceX, all want to help. And now we know for certain that Blue Origin will be joining them in the competition.

The agency has budgeted only $30 million to $40 million to pay for development at this time, which sounds like small beans to many of these companies. That being said, the eventual winner(s) of contract(s) to help NASA realize its mission can expect to reap contracts worth tens and hundreds of millions more to build, launch, and operate the spacecraft necessary to land on the moon.

This latest space race has just started -- but it's also already begun.

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