Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, joined other companies today in laying out plans for commercial missions to the moon during a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill.
“It’s time for America to return to the moon, this time to stay,” Brett Alexander, Blue Origin’s director of business development and strategy, told members of the House Subcommittee on Space. That declaration echoed Bezos’ oft-used phrase, virtually word for word.
Blue Origin has already been testing a suborbital space vehicle called New Shepard, with an eye toward taking on passengers as early as next year. It’s also developing a more powerful orbital-class rocket called New Glenn, which could be used as part of a lunar mission architecture known as Blue Moon.
Today Alexander said the Blue Moon lunar lander would be optimized to fly on NASA’s Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket that’s due for its first test flight in 2019. When paired with the SLS, Blue Moon could deliver more than 5 tons of cargo to the lunar surface. Smaller payloads could be delivered using New Glenn or other rockets.
“Just pick the launch vehicle and go,” Alexander said.
Alexander said that the lander would use a version of Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine that’s optimized for in-space operation, and that Blue Origin has already made “significant investments” in the technologies needed for the Blue Moon program.
“As part of a public-private partnership with NASA, we are willing to invest further in developing this capability,” he said.
As templates for such collaboration, Alexander pointed to NASA’s commercial cargo program for resupplying the International Space Station, as well as the NextSTEP program for space habitat development. To accelerate the push to the moon, Alexander urged Congress to streamline the licensing process for space vehicles and set up a timeline for lunar surface missions in the mid- to late 2020s.
Jason Crusan, NASA’s director for advanced exploration systems, told lawmakers that his agency is already pursuing public-private partnerships for moon exploration through its Lunar CATALYST program – and that more ambitious projects could be in the works.
“The agency is currently assessing possible robotic mission concepts, acquisition approaches and associated payloads for a potential series of lunar cargo missions to the surface of the moon starting as early as 2018,” Crusan said.
In May, NASA issued a request for information about future commercial missions to the moon, with an eye toward scientific studies ranging from geological surveys to technology development to sample return. Blue Origin is almost certainly among the interested parties.
Two of the companies currently benefiting from Lunar CATALYST sent executives to today’s hearing.
Bob Richards, co-founder and CEO of Moon Express, said his company was on track to send its first lander to the lunar surface early next year. If that mission is successful, Moon Express could win a share of the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE for privately backed lunar missions. Two more missions are due to follow in 2019 and 2020.
“When we started Moon Express, we were looking at missions that might cost $100 million or more to get to the moon,” Richards said. “With the combination of the current technology and the low-cost vehicles that are coming on the market, we can do initial precursor missions for under $10 million of our cost.”
Astrobotic Technology CEO John Thornton told the lawmakers that his company’s Peregrine lander would be ready for trips to the moon by 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“From the get-go, we are market-focused,” Thornton said. “We say, ‘OK, what’s the market out there for payloads, what size is necessary, and then we design a lander and scale that’s appropriate for that.'”
He said Astrobotic determined that a payload capacity of 265 kilograms (584 pounds) would cover most of the existing market for lunar deliveries – so that’s what Peregrine is designed to carry.
George Sowers, an expert on space resources at the Colorado School of Mines said water ice deposits of the moon could be converted into hydrogen and oxygen, “the most efficient chemical propellants known.”
“Water is the oil of space,” he said.
The moon’s rocks and soil could also be converted into building materials and helium-3 fuel for future fusion power plants, Sowers said.
Questions from lawmakers focused on whether commercial lunar activities would interfere with scientific missions (the witnesses said those aims were complementary); whether Apollo landing sites would be disturbed (Thornton said they’d be preserved as memorials); and whether missions to the moon would hurt prospects for Mars missions (Richards said “the moon is not an off-ramp to Mars, it’s an on-ramp to Mars”).
Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin, R-Texas, emphasized that NASA shouldn’t “leave our nation’s space exploration future purely to the whims of market uncertainties, and we should not bet our nation’s future in space on any one company.”
But he said there was a chance that commercial space ventures could lead the way to future economic growth, just as companies such as Microsoft and Amazon have led the way in information technology.
“We cannot compel such an ambitious outcome, but by careful and thoughtful consideration we can, hopefully and humbly, enable it,” Babin said. “At the very least, we should not stifle it.”