Between the shipping and handling, the web servers, the groceries, and the newspapers, Jeff Bezos never stopped thinking about the moon. He was 5 years old when Americans first walked on the lunar surface, and he remembers the grainy black-and-white footage from that historic moment.
“It had a huge impact on me,” Bezos said. “And it hasn’t changed.”
Bezos, in addition to leading Amazon and owning The Washington Post, runs a spaceflight company called Blue Origin. Blue Origin has been working on something for the past three years, and on Thursday, Bezos unveiled it: a giant spacecraft designed to touch down gently on the lunar surface, plus a small rover with droopy camera eyes, like WALL-E.
“This is an incredible vehicle,” Bezos said, beaming. “And it’s going to the moon.”
If this news seems like it’s coming out of, well, the blue, that’s because Blue Origin is not the flashiest company. It has conducted much of its work in secret and rarely holds press events. But the company, Bezos has said, is “the most important work that I’m doing.” He spends about $1 billion on it each year, collected from selling off his Amazon stock.
So far, the work has stayed close to the ground. Blue Origin has carried out nearly a dozen successful flights of its New Shepard rocket, named for Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space. The rocket hurtles upward until it reaches the edge of space, then descends and lands vertically on the ground. Bezos wants to use New Shepard to fly space tourists, perhaps as early as this year.
That’s one dream. The moon is another kind, and requires different technology.
The lander revealed on Thursday, a mock-up, is called Blue Moon. It’s sleek, hulking, and insect-like, with spindly legs to cushion the landing. Here’s the plan, or at least part of it: Before touching down on the lunar surface, Blue Moon will dispatch a bunch of tiny satellites, depositing them into an orbit around the moon, where they can collect scientific data. Then it will fire its engines and begin its approach. Less than a mile from the surface, it will rotate itself to land upright. The underbelly is equipped with lasers to guide the spacecraft to its target landing zone. Once it’s on the ground, robotic arms will lower a rover, perhaps as many as four, onto the dusty, slate-colored ground.
Bezos said engineers are ready to begin engine tests as early as this summer. But there are some notable gaps in this plan. The lander must be launched into space on a rocket, and Bezos didn’t say which one. He didn’t say when it might fly either. But he said enough—especially to the people he made sure were listening.
The big reveal was held at a conference center about a five-minute drive from the White House. In March, Vice President Mike Pence announced that NASA would undertake a mission to the moon and return American astronauts to the surface in 2024. It’s an ambitious plan, and currently unfunded; NASA has yet to tell Congress, which determines the funding for the agency, how much this effort will cost. NASA has solicited proposals from U.S. commercial spaceflight companies to help, and many, mostly small start-ups, have jumped at the chance.
That now includes Blue Origin, which leads the pack in spaceflight experience. Bezos spoke effusively about the new policy and Pence’s vision. He invited Mark Sirangelo, a space professional whom NASA hired to guide the new effort—to be, essentially, Trump’s moon czar—to the event. Bezos declared, “It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay.” Here I am, Bezos seemed to plead; use me.
In the vision he laid out, Bezos went beyond the moon. Earth’s resources, he warned, are finite. Someday they will be depleted, and humankind will be forced to look for other homes. “Space is the only way to go,” he said. But he eschewed popular destinations such as Mars, which his colleague in the space biz, Elon Musk, dreams of tearing up like an old carpet to construct a new, Earth-like environment.
Bezos offered an argument made famous by Goldilocks. Other planets, he said, are too small. They’re too far. They don’t have enough gravity. Instead, human beings should build habitats in orbit around Earth, perpetually rotating to produce artificial gravity, a concept popularized in the 1970s by the American physicist Gerard O’Neill. These manufactured worlds, Bezos said, could each house 1 million people or more. Some habitats would be cities, others national parks. Some might even re-create famous places on Earth. All, according to the animations Bezos shared, would be idyllic, with perfect weather all year round.
“People are going to want to live here,” he said.
And what happens to Earth in this Interstellar-esque future? The planet would be zoned for residential and light industrial use. The heavy, pollution-causing stuff would exist in one of those off-world habitats.
Bezos doesn’t plan to take care of this himself, though.
“Who is going to do this work? Not me,” Bezos said. He pointed to a group of middle-school-aged children near the front of the stage, all dressed in Blue Origin T-shirts. “You guys are going to do this, and your children are going to do this. This is going to take a long time.”
No pressure. In the meantime, Bezos said he would do what seems feasible in the present, such as reducing the cost of space launches by reusing parts of a rocket, something Blue Origin and Musk’s SpaceX already do. And starting with the Blue Moon lander, he would mine the natural resources on the moon.
Robotic missions to the moon have found evidence in the past decade that water exists on the moon, in the form of ice. Pence, along with the NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, have insisted that exploiting that precious resource would make long-term outposts on the moon possible. It’s far easier than bringing along giant watercoolers from Earth. Future lunar explorers, they say, could feed the water ice into life-support systems, or split it into hydrogen and oxygen and turn it into rocket fuel. “Ultimately, we’re going to be able to get hydrogen from that water on the moon, and be able to refuel these vehicles on the surface of the moon,” Bezos said.
The moon might seem like an easy destination—it’s right there, and astronauts have gone before—but success is far from guaranteed. Just last month, an Israeli lander tried and failed to land on the surface, splintering into pieces as it crashed.
Bezos is a natural fit for this kind of endeavor. Today, rich guys are doing the work historically done by governments and their vaunted space agencies. They’re launching satellites, space-station supplies, even a Tesla. Soon, if everything goes well, they’ll even be launching NASA astronauts. And Bezos is the richest of them all. With a net worth of $156 billion, he’s the wealthiest person on the planet, and—considering we haven’t found anyone else out there—possibly the universe.
His immense wealth often prompts questions about how he chooses to spend it, and Bezos hinted at the criticism on Thursday. “There are immediate problems, things that we have to work on … I’m talking about poverty, hunger, homelessness, pollution, overfishing in the oceans,” he said. “But there are also long-range problems, and we need to work on those too.”
Blue Origin was founded before SpaceX, and before Virgin Galactic, another company run by a rich guy, Richard Branson, who wants to send paying customers to the space right above Earth. And yet Thursday’s event felt like something of a debut. The company went all out. The entire ballroom was awash in blue light. The walls were draped in black fabric dotted with LED lights that mimicked the cosmos as they twinkled. Tall blue fixtures that could best be described as oversize glow sticks surrounded the seating area. The playlist featured only space-themed songs, such as Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” and Styx’s “The Outpost.”
The event felt like an introduction for Bezos too. Unlike Musk, Bezos lacks a dedicated following of fanboys drooling over his every move; the public is just beginning to learn just how much of a character Bezos might be. As he pushes ahead with his moon vision, he’ll be up against Musk’s particular brand of swagger. So far, Bezos’s wealthy space persona comes across as an Apple showman running through the specs of a new phone. But in the long run, it’s the moonshot that matters—and whether Blue Origin sticks the landing.
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