Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and one of his Blue Origin rockets. (Blue Origin Photo)
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is about to lay out an updated vision for his “other” multibillion-dollar venture, the Blue Origin rocket company, including plans for missions to the moon.
Bezos is due to speak at an invitation-only event planned here in Washington at 4 p.m. ET (1 p.m. PT) today. Details about his presentation were closely held in advance: The only hint that Blue Origin dropped on Twitter was a picture of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, sitting amid polar pack ice.
That’s interpreted as an allusion to Bezos’ plans for lunar exploration, starting with robotic missions to the moon’s polar regions and moving ahead to create a permanent human settlement on the lunar surface. A prime target for future lunar missions is Shackleton Crater near the lunar south pole, which is thought to have substantial reserves of water ice in its permanently shadowed depths.
For years, Blue Origin has been working on the design of a lander capable of delivering several tons’ worth of payload to the moon. The company suggested sending the lander, nicknamed Blue Moon, to Shackleton Crater in a proposal shared with NASA and President Donald Trump’s transition team in 2017.
Blue Origin executives have said Blue Moon could take on its first lunar mission by 2023 or so, if there’s sufficient support from NASA. That time frame meshes with NASA’s schedule for sending astronauts to the moon by 2024, laid out by Vice President Mike Pence in March. By the end of this month, the space agency intends to ask commercial ventures to propose lunar lander concepts that could be ready in time to hit the 2024 schedule.
Industry sources who gathered here for this week’s Satellite 2019 conference said they were sure that missions to the moon would figure in today’s talk, with the caveat that they didn’t have inside information about what Bezos would say.
Going to the moon isn’t the only space odyssey on Bezos’ mind. Blue Origin is testing a suborbital spaceship called New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first astronaut to fly in NASA’s Project Mercury). The hardware for New Shepard is built at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and shipped to a launch facility in West Texas for flight tests.The company plans to start putting people on board by the end of this year.
Blue Origin is also developing an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn (named after John Glenn, the first American to go into orbit). New Glenn would be powered by a new type of rocket engine, the BE-4, which uses liquefied natural gas as fuel. The BE-4 is expected to finish up qualification tests in Texas by the end of this year, with New Glenn’s first launch scheduled in 2021.
Bezos has said he’s spending a billion dollars a year on Blue Origin, with most of that money going toward the New Glenn project. BE-4 engines are currently built in Kent, but they’ll eventually be produced at a multimillion-dollar factory being built in Huntsville, Ala. New Glenn rockets will be assembled at an even bigger factory in Florida, and launched from a complex nearby at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
All this activity stems from Bezos’ childhood dreams of spaceflight, sparked 50 years ago when he watched the Apollo 11 moon landing at the age of 5. Some of the friends from his youth have joked that the reason he created Amazon was to earn the money to fund his own space effort — and just as jokingly, Bezos said he “can neither confirm nor deny” that claim.
Bezos has repeatedly said his dream is to have “millions of people living and working in space,” even though it may take hundreds of years to get to that point. And if there’s any single person on Earth who can help make that dream come true, it would be Bezos, whose world-leading family net worth has been estimated at close to $160 billion.