Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has reportedly proposed sending a robotic lander to the moon’s south polar region by 2020, as an initial step toward an “Amazon-like” lunar delivery system and eventually a permanently inhabited moon base.
Blue Origin’s white paper is described in a report from The Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos.
The Post says the company’s seven-page proposal, dated Jan. 4, has been circulating among NASA’s leadership and President Donald Trump’s transition team. It’s only one of several proposals aimed at turning the focus of exploration beyond Earth orbit to the moon and its environs during Trump’s term.
As described by the Post, the proposal seeks NASA’s support for sending a “Blue Moon” lander to Shackleton Crater near the moon’s south pole. The lander would be designed to carry up to 10,000 pounds of payload. It could be launched by Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is currently under development, or by other vehicles including NASA’s Space Launch System or United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5.
“Once on the surface, the lander’s useful payload can be used to conduct science or deploy rovers,” the Post quoted the proposal as saying. “A robotic arm attached to the lander will deploy to examine the lunar surface with an array of instruments.”
For more than a decade, Shackleton Crater has been regarded as a promising locale for a permanent lunar base because its permanently shadowed areas are thought to harbor water ice – a necessity for crewed operations. Theoretically, such ice could be processed to provide drinkable water, breathable oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.
Some areas of the crater’s rim are in near-perpetual sunlight, which would be a boon for generating solar power.
Blue Origin’s proposal envisions an initial landing in mid-2020, with follow-up missions to bring samples of lunar ice back to Earth and build up the infrastructure for human settlements. The Post said the concept could lead to an “Amazon-like shipment service for the moon.”
The Post said it obtained a copy of the proposal and had its authenticity confirmed by Blue Origin. Bezos then answered the Post’s questions via email.
“It is time for America to return to the moon – this time to stay,” the Post quoted Bezos as saying. “A permanently inhabited lunar settlement is a difficult and worthy objective. I sense a lot of people are excited about this.”
Bezos stressed that the mission could only be done in partnership with NASA. “I’m excited about this and am ready to invest my own money alongside NASA to make it happen,” he told the Post.
So far, Blue Origin has successfully put its New Shepard suborbital spaceship through five autonomous test flights to space and back. If the company sticks to its schedule, crews will start climbing aboard late this year, and paying passengers could start taking trips next year.
Bezos discussed New Shepard and the “Blue Moon” plan at an Aviation Week award ceremony:
The company’s operations are headquartered south of Seattle in Kent, but it’s building orbital production and launch facilities in Florida. Construction should be finished in 2018. Bezos has said orbital test flights of the New Glenn rocket are due to begin by the end of the decade, which suggests a mid-2020 timetable for a lunar mission is ambitious.
Missions to the moon seem destined to have their day in the sun during the Trump administration, in part because some of the people involved in the transition want to see the White House back a dramatic space mission before the 2020 presidential election.
In addition to “Blue Moon,” these initiatives are in the works:
- Five of the teams in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition are aiming to execute robotic lunar landings by the end of this year. One of the teams, Moon Express, has said its mission could set the stage for FedEx-like shipments to and from the moon.
- SpaceX says it has two private customers for a round-the-moon trip in 2018. The spacefliers would be launched on a Falcon Heavy rocket and ride a beefed-up Dragon capsuie for a trip that zooms past the moon, goes out as far as 400,000 miles and then executes a free-return trajectory back to Earth.
- NASA is considering a plan to rework the first launch of its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket to send astronauts on a similar round-the-moon mission in the 2019-2020 timeframe.
- Boeing, Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance have all drawn up concepts for cislunar space stations. These crewed outposts could be put into lunar orbit or at gravitational balance points to serve as bases for robotic operations on the moon’s surface, or as waypoints for trips to Mars.
- The European Space Agency is discussing an international effort to build a “Moon Village” that would serve as a permanent settlement on the lunar surface.