Blue Origin unveils lunar lander

Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight company, reveals a model of a lunar lander. Can Blue Origin deliver on its goal to get to the moon? Why are billionaires like Elon Musk, Paul Allen, Richard Branson and Robert Bigelow having their own space program?

Background

Blue Origin LLC, is a privately funded American aerospace manufacturer created by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Initially focused on suborbital spaceflight, Blue Origin moved into the orbital spaceflight technology business in 2014. It began by securing contracts to provide rocket engines for the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a major US launch systems operator. In 2015, the company announced plans to manufacture and operate its own orbital launch vehicle called New Glenn from the Florida Space Coast. The Space Coast is around the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which has launched all of NASA’s crewed spaceflights. 

American Vice President Mike Pence announced in March 2019 that NASA plans to build a space platform in lunar orbit. He also promised to put American astronauts on the moon’s south pole by 2024 “by any means necessary.” The moon’s south pole is believed to contain enough recoverable ice water that can be used to make additional rocket fuel and drinking water to sustain life. 

Blue Origin is working on two other major projects: New Shepard, a suborbital rocket to fly tourist into space, and New Glenn, a heavy lift, partially reusable launch rocket. 

Analysis

Jeff Bezos recently unveiled a mockup of a lunar lander built by Blue Origin called Blue Moon. The unmanned lander will be able to deliver payloads to the moon, deploy up to four rovers and deploy satellites into orbit the moon. Mr Bezos also unveiled a model of one of the proposed rovers and a new rocket engine called BE-7 which yields 4,535 kg of thrust. 

Mr Bezos argued, “It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay.” Although Mr Bezos has often received criticism from the Trump administration and the President in particular, he went out of his way to praise Mr Pence’s timeline. Regarding American lunar ambitions, Mr Trump and Mr Bezos appear to be on the same page. In 2017, Mr Trump made the return to the moon a top priority for the US space program, saying that it would establish the foundation for an eventual journey to Mars. 

Blue Origin has consistently voiced support for a human outpost on the moon. The New Glenn rockets are expected to be ready by 2021, and the company will launch humans on suborbital flights later in 2019. However, Mr Bezos’ presentation did not outline a specific schedule for the moon lander or explain what mission it was to be used for. However, Mr Bezos did underscore the importance of ice on the lunar surface. He also outlined a broader vision for the future where people live and work in space.  To build on this goal, Blue Origin would work on reducing launch costs and using resources already in space. Mr Bezos also outlined plans for mining, manufacturing and colonies in space. 

Assessment

Our assessment is that Blue Origin is developing its capabilities in a step-by-step manner, slowly building up its skills for a lunar landing. While accelerating various initiatives, Blue Origin will launch humans into sub-orbit. We feel that the company will move into orbital spaceflight, eventually focusing on lunar expeditions that provide a base for the journey to Mars. 

We believe Blue Origins’ eventual goal is to compete with private and public spaceflight initiatives such as ULA and SpaceX and be one of the first to access the natural resources of space. We understand that Bezos is trying to target the Shackleton crater, strategic destination, as it receives perpetual sunlight which can be used for solar power. We also feel that the lunar South Pole is home to large deposits of water ice which can potentially be used for life support, broken down into chemical elements - hydrogen and oxygen - and repurposed as rocket fuel. 

However, we feel that Blue Origin has to steadily build up expertise and demonstrate that they can fly humans to space and back.