One week after SpaceX announced plans to orbit two paying customers around the moon, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and owner of The Washington Post, announced his own plans to change the face of human space travel; by landing 10,000 pound shipments of supplies on the lunar surface in his own space craft by 2020.
Blue Origin, Bezos’ private space company, may not have garnered as many headlines as their larger competitor, SpaceX, in recent months, but they too have been making leaps toward maintaining a continued private sector orbital presence. Blue Origin boasts a number of successful launches themselves, including recent testing of their reusable New Shepard vehicle, a capsule designed to ferry human beings into orbit and equipped with a “full envelope escape system” that will allow astronauts to eject from the spacecraft mid-flight if anything were to go wrong.
Now, Bezos plans to begin construction on the Blue Moon spacecraft – an autonomous ship that, according to a seven-page memo being circulated in the White House, would be capable of depositing 10,000 pound payloads on the Lunar surface and return to earth to be reused for further shipments. According to Bezos, this “Amazon-like” shipment delivery method will allow Blue Horizon to serve as a frequent supplier for a permanent or semi-permanent moon colony.
The Blue Moon will not be designed or equipped to transport human beings to the moon, despite Blue Origin’s efforts to produce a safe means to deliver humans into low earth orbit. The two tasks may seem similar, but the dangers of traveling to the moon are far greater – a trip to the International Space Station would require the Blue Origin New Shepard ship to cover approximately two hundred and nineteen miles each way, amounting to a round trip of just a few days. A trip to the moon, on the other hand, would require covering nearly 240,000 miles one way, and would likely take a week or so to return. Outfitting a craft to support human life for that distance and duration is no small feat – as it has only been accomplished by one organization in history to date, and will soon be attempted by the second, SpaceX.
Of course, having Amazon Prime deliver to the moon won’t do anyone much good if there isn’t anyone there to take delivery – but Bezos isn’t concerned about that. In the memo he submitted to Trump’s administration, he cites the need for “incentives to the private sector to demonstrate a commercial lunar cargo delivery service” in order to supply a human presence on the moon that he argues seems almost inevitable.
NASA and SpaceX both have plans in place to return to the moon in the next few years, with SpaceX using its Dragon capsule and NASA planning to reach lunar orbit with their Orion craft once it completes testing. Director General Jan Woerner of the European Space Agency has already laid out plans for a what he calls a “lunar village” with presences from a number of international bodies. Meanwhile, China, India and Japan each have plans underway to send orbiters and rovers to the moon by 2020. With so much attention and money focused on reaching the moon, Bezos sees it as a given that an inexpensive and reliable means to supply these missions is a necessity.
According to Bezos, making a moon colony a reality could “only be done in partnership with NASA. Our liquid hydrogen expertise and experience with precision vertical landing offer the fastest path to a lunar lander mission. I’m excited about this and am ready to invest my own money alongside NASA to make it happen.”
It may seem lofty to pitch such a mission to NASA and the White House before plans for the establishment of a lunar base are even cemented – but Bezos’ plan may indeed be the first step to creating one. As is the case with any military operation, it becomes increasingly dangerous to extend personnel beyond established supply lines – so by establishing them first via robotic delivery ships, we can put future astronauts in the best possible position in terms of survivability and mission readiness before they even set foot in a rocket.
Image courtesy of the Washington Post