Blue Moon and beyond: How Jeff Bezos plans to take civilization to space, starting with lunar colony

Jeff Bezos shows off Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander in Washington, D.C., this week. (Blue Origin Photo)

It’s our choice: a finite world with limited resources, or an infinite universe with unlimited potential. Those were the options presented by Jeff Bezos this week he laid out his plan to colonize the Moon as a first step toward a future with as many as a trillion people in space.

Blue Origin, the Amazon founder’s private space venture, unveiled its Blue Moon lunar lander at an event in Washington, D.C., this week, and said it was working to help the country achieve the Trump administration’s goal of putting U.S. astronauts back on the moon by 2024. Blue Origin is one of multiple companies expected to compete for the NASA contract to go back to the moon.

But a lunar colony would be just the first step in Bezos’ larger aspirations for humans in the solar system.

GeekWire’s aerospace and science editor, Alan Boyle, was there for the announcement, and he called in for this special edition of the GeekWire podcast. Listen above, or subscribe in your favorite podcast app. Continue reading for an edited transcript, along with highlights from Jeff Bezos’ remarks at the Blue Moon unveiling.

Todd Bishop: Alan, where are you, and what are you covering this week?

Alan Boyle: Well, I’m in Washington, D.C. I’m actually calling from a park that’s near the place where Jeff Bezos had his big production to introduce the Blue Moon lunar lander. This happened on Thursday afternoon. It was a big production. Deep blue lights in a darkened ballroom at the Washington Convention Center, and it was all done up in a spacey décor showing off this lunar lander which is probably twice as high as Jeff Bezos was on stage. It was a Hollywood-style reveal, or I might say an Elon Musk-style reveal.

Todd Bishop: Yes, and Elon Musk actually had a response, which we’ll get to later. In the meantime, give us the big picture here, because last we heard from Jeff Bezos on the GeekWire podcast, you were actually interviewing him on stage, and he did reveal that Blue Origin, his commercial space venture, intended to go to the moon. As his signature line goes now, he said, “We will go back to the moon, this time to stay.” What was new in what you heard yesterday and what’s the significance?

Alan Boyle: Right. He used that line again with Thursday’s presentation. If you’re really looking at it on a technical level, there were more details available. For example, they’re developing a new type of engine called the BE7 hydrogen-fueled engine that would be used on this lunar lander, and could be refueled using hydrogen recovered from lunar ice. Also, some specifics about how payloads would be sent back and forth. The concept was tweaked with a stretched version.

 It’s the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years. I love this. It’s the right thing to do.

This version of the lander can be stretched to be a little bit bigger and capable of carrying the hardware that folks would need to land astronauts on the surface. That is a significant twist that this is actually being offered to bring humans to the lunar surface as the administration wants to do in 2024.

Jeff Bezos during Blue Moon unveiling: “Vice President Pence just recently said it’s the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years. I love this. It’s the right thing to do. For those of you doing the arithmetic at home, that’s 2024. We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago.”

Todd Bishop: What is Jeff Bezos’ big picture goal here? What’s he trying to accomplish and why is he trying to do it?

Alan Boyle: Well the biggest picture is having millions of people living and working in space, which is another classic Jeff Bezos catch line. This is about how you get there, what are the steps. Jeff spent a good amount of time during Thursday’s presentation talking about the step-by-step approach, how Blue Origin is working on this suborbital space vehicle called New Shepherd that may start taking people to space later this year. They’re working on an orbital class rocket called New Glenn which would be able to put satellites into orbit and perhaps go beyond Earth orbit.

Then there’s Blue Moon which would facilitate perhaps a permanent settlement on the moon as Jeff would like to see. From there you just take advantage of the resources and try to push further out into the solar system.

Jeff Bezos: The good news is that if we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes we have unlimited resources. We get to choose. Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth? This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy. If we’re out in the solar system, we can have a trillion humans in the solar system, which means we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. This would be an incredible civilization.

Alan Boyle: Jeff actually talked about this idea of O’Neill cylinders which, again, he’s brought up before. He talked about this in quite a bit of depth at a presentation at the Museum of Flight in Seattle a couple of years ago. These are self-standing, free flying rotating habitats in space that would be able to accommodate a city’s worth of people and all their things. This is part of the grand vision. It goes back to the concept advanced by one of Jeff Bezos’ mentors, Gerry O’Neill, who came up with this book called The High Frontier where he talked about these cylinders serving as habitats for people living in outer space. That’s a pretty big picture.

Jeff Bezos: What could this future look like? Where would a trillion humans live? Well, it’s very interesting. Somebody named Gerry O’Neill, a physics professor, looked at this question very carefully and he asked a very precise question that nobody had ever asked before. It was is a planetary surface the best place for humans to expand into the solar system? He and his students set to work on answering that question. They came to a very surprising, for them, counterintuitive answer: no.

Why not? Well, they came up with a bunch of problems. One is that other planetary surfaces aren’t that big. You’re talking about maybe a doubling at best. It’s not that much. They’re a long way a way. Round-trip times to Mars are on the order of years. Launch opportunities to Mars are only once every 22 months, which is a very significant logistics problem. Last, you’re far enough away that you’re not going to be able to do real-time communications with Earth. You’re going to be limited by speed-of-light lag. The kids sitting here and probably some of the adults, too, don’t even think about playing Fortnite with somebody on Earth, because it’s not going to work.

Todd Bishop: Put this in the scheme of everything that’s going on in terms of commercial space. Because if I remember correctly, Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. Jeff Bezos wants to go to moon. Where are we, big picture, and where does this Blue Moon mission fit in?

Alan Boyle: It’s kind of concentric circles moving out. There’s a lot happening in Earth orbit relating to constellations of satellites and also commercial methods of putting people into low Earth orbit, specifically the International Space Station and SpaceX and Boeing are involved in that. I was at a satellite conference during this past week during the build up to Jeff Bezos’ announcement, and there’s a lot going on with mega constellations, thousands of satellites that would provide ubiquitous access to the internet and high speed data.

Then you go to the moon and because the moon is targeted by the Trump Administration for 2024 and NASA is onboard that bus, everyone is looking to the moon. Even Elon Musk says that the Starship spaceship that he’s developing would be suitable as a lunar lander. Starship could be seen as a big-budget competitor to Blue Origin’s Blue Moon. Then the moon is seen as a stepping stone further outward to Mars. That’s where Elon Musk’s main focus is.

It’s not so much a focus for Jeff Bezos. He says that Earth is the best planet. If you’re looking at space as a plan B, it’s really more about preserving Earth as humanity’s plan A to put more of the industry into outer space and leave Earth as more of a residential district in our interplanetary metropolis.

After Mars, you’re looking farther and farther out, and then you get into the science fiction realm, or at least you’re talking about what’s going to happen in the 22nd century. A lot of folks are speculating where do you go from there. It gets less and less real sounding the further out you move.

Todd Bishop: What were your impressions of the Blue Moon lander, seeing the mock up in person?

Alan Boyle: I was frankly kind of astonished because I’ve seen renderings of the lander before, and I kind of imagined it as something that had a top on it like a tabletop, that it’s like a billiards table in space. This is huge. I was amazed to see how big the full-sized mock-up is. It’s more like, oh gosh, I don’t know if there’s a vehicle that quite compares to it in size. Bigger than a helicopter that’s for sure.

Think about a helicopter maybe scaled up to twice the size. That was the thing that struck me the most. That was the show stopper for me, just to see the curtain literally being pulled away and to see this huge thing with Jeff Bezos giving a guided tour.

Jeff Bezos: This is Blue Moon. It’ll soft land, in a precise way, 3.6 metric tons onto the lunar surface. The stretched tank variant of it will soft land 6.5 metric tons onto the lunar surface. The deck is designed to be a very simple interface, so that a great variety of payloads can be placed onto the top deck and secured. On the left-hand side you can see our star tracker, so that this vehicle can autonomously navigate in space. On the right-hand side, you’ll see an optical communications system that gives us gigabit bandwidth back to Earth. It’s a laser that transmits data back to Earth. We also have X-band for 10 megabit radio.

1-630x354.jpgA depiction of the Blue Moon lander on the Moon. (Blue Origin Image)

Todd Bishop: It’s got four legs and a giant sphere in the middle. It’s basically got a propulsion cone at the bottom of it.

Alan Boyle: That’s the BE7 engine. Then those large spheres are propellant tanks for the liquid hydrogen and the liquid oxygen.

Jeff Bezos: Liquid hydrogen. Why are we using liquid hydrogen? This is not how Apollo did it. Why are we using liquid hydrogen as our fuel? Couple of reasons. One, it’s very high performance and so that helps a lot when you’re landing on the moon. After you’ve got to carry all of your propellant to the moon. Second reason we’re losing liquid hydrogen is because 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 and use them.

Alan Boyle: There’s a frame around it and there are electricity generating fuel cells in the frame that would take advantage of some of the hydrogen that comes off the propellant tanks. Then there’s a big deck on top, and the top flat deck is where you could put up to four rovers the size of, say, NASA’s Curiosity rover, or in the stretched version you could put what’s called an ascent stage on there, and that would be analogous to the ascent stage that the Apollo astronauts used to lift off from the lunar module during the Apollo missions.

Todd Bishop: Is it coincidence that this is coinciding with the build up to the Apollo 11 anniversary, the landing on the moon?

Alan Boyle: Well, it’s a good hook, and there is a lot of talk about what might be done in the next few years. Of course, the 2024 date is looming large in the plans for lunar missions. It just so happens that if Donald Trump is reelected 2024 would come toward the end of that second term, and so that’s one of the reasons why it has a little bit of a political cast to it. There are a lot of question marks about whether 2024 was doable. Before the latest push led by Vice President Mike Pence, 2028 was being talked about as the timeframe for a human landing on the moon.

They are really going to have to rush it, and NASA is expected to tell Congress in the next week or two how much this is going to cost, and then the real debate begins over how doable this is going to be.

170405-blue-chat-630x461.jpgJeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, shows off a mockup of the New Shepard suborbital space capsule during a 2017 conference in Colorado. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Todd Bishop: As you’ve been reporting, Jeff Bezos is selling about a billion dollars worth of Amazon stock per year to invest in Blue Origin his space venture. There’s this funny sort of joke among his friends that the reason he started Amazon was to basically get into space, to support this space venture. I don’t know how much of a joke that actually is.

Alan Boyle: He said he would neither confirm nor deny, but you know that he’s got a smile on his face as he says that, as he said to me a couple of years ago.

Todd Bishop: One thing that struck me from his presentation was he was talking about customers, people who would use this Blue Moon lunar lander to get their own payloads onto the moon. It was a reminder that this is not philanthropy for him.

Jeff Bezos: We also have already a bunch of customers for Blue Moon, many of whom are in the audience. They’re going to be deploying science missions to the moon as well. People are very excited about this capability to soft land their cargo, their rovers, their science experiments onto the surface of the moon in a precise way. There is no capability to do that today.

Alan Boyle: I think for Jeff Bezos this is one of the things where he started really with his presentation. He started with this idea of there are a lot of things you can do to help humanity. As you know, the Bezos family has been involved in some of those philanthropic ventures. There are other things that are longer range that can help humanity and that’s where he classifies this space effort, that it’s worth spending some money on this. I know that there’s a lot of question about how much he’s spending and whether this money could be better spent back on Earth.

Previously: Jeff Bezos: ‘We will have to leave this planet … and it’s going to make this planet better’

I think Jeff would probably say, “Well, I’m doing that and other people are doing that. You have to take care of this long range effort as well.” In terms of the customers, these are people who would be mostly flying scientific payloads or engineering payloads perhaps to test equipment in the lunar environment. The impression I get is that Blue Origin would very much like to have NASA be the anchor customer for this. NASA is going to be putting out a solicitation for lunar lander concepts that could be used for human space missions, and Blue Origin definitely wants to get in on that.

I got the impression just from the enthusiasm with which Jeff has talked about this over the years and this week as well that even if Blue Origin did lose out to some other company like Lockheed Martin or a SpaceX for having that human lunar lander contract from NASA, I get the impression that work would continue on Blue Moon for other purposes. It’s just that this is kind of the marquee mission, and Jeff would like to be in on this as he would love to be in on, it seems, everything from the cloud to retail.

Todd Bishop: You were mentioning those constellations earlier, the satellites that are going to be all around the Earth providing internet access. Amazon itself has recently announced plans for one of those not related to Blue Origin directly but potentially working with them possibly down the road.

Alan Boyle: That’s an interesting play, and there was a lot of talk about that at the satellite conference, and I’m sure I’m going to try to write up more of my thoughts in a coherent manner about that in the next week or so. Amazon has its own purposes for having these satellites in space. One person compared it to a self-licking ice cream cone, because Amazon could use that satellite network to extend its reach in terms of selling stuff through or providing cloud services or even streaming services for Prime Video.

It’s a delicate thing, because Amazon is a publicly held company and you can’t just say automatically that Blue Origin would get the contract for those launches because the shareholders want to make sure that it’s not a self-dealing sort of situation for Jeff Bezos where he is inappropriately using one money from a public venture to shore up his private ventures. That’s going to be a delicate matter as Project Kuiper, Amazon’s satellite effort, proceeds.

Todd Bishop: Big picture, what would be your key takeaways from what you saw?

Alan Boyle: Blue Origin is really serious about this moon thing, and it’s not just a PowerPoint. That’s been known internally for several years. In fact, some of the people from Blue Origin said, “At last I can talk about this thing that I’ve been working on for three years.” This is real, and it may be a mock-up now, but the amount of effort that Blue Origin is putting into this will, I think, make this a reality. In terms of what it’s used for, that’s yet to be seen.

Jeff Bezos is clearly committed to this and like Elon Musk who made a little bit of fun about how much Jeff has been promising but not delivering yet, but, just like Elon, Jeff really once he latches on to something he’s not going to let go. I don’t think he’s going to let go of the moon based on what we saw on Thursday.

Todd Bishop: This is a family podcast, so I won’t quote Elon Musk’s tweet or the Photoshopped version of the moon lander that he tweeted.

Alan Boyle: It’s basically Elon saying, “Jeff, you’re such a tease.”  We’ll leave it at that.

Oh stop teasing, Jeff

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