March 2, 2017 at 5:57 PM
More than four decades after the last man walked on the lunar surface, several upstart space entrepreneurs are looking to capitalize on NASA's renewed interest in returning to the moon, offering a variety of proposals with the ultimate goal of establishing a lasting human presence there.
The commercial sector's interest comes as many anticipate support from the Trump administration, which is eager for a first-term triumph to rally the nation the way the Apollo flights did in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The latest to offer a proposal is Jeffrey P. Bezos, whose space company Blue Origin has been circulating a seven-page white paper to NASA leadership and President Trump's transition team about the company's interest in developing a lunar spacecraft with a lander that would touch down near a crater at the south pole where there is water and nearly continuous sunlight for solar energy. The memo urges the space agency to back an Amazon-like shipment service for the moon that would deliver gear for experiments, cargo and habitats by mid-2020, helping to enable "future human settlement" of the moon. (Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, owns The Washington Post.)
"It is time for America to return to the Moon — this time to stay," Bezos said in response to emailed questions from The Post. "A permanently inhabited lunar settlement is a difficult and worthy objective. I sense a lot of people are excited about this."
The Post obtained a copy of the white paper, marked "proprietary and confidential," and the company then confirmed its authenticity and agreed to answer questions about it.
Bezos's proposal comes as SpaceX founder Elon Musk made a stunning announcement this week that his company planned to fly two unnamed, private citizens on a tourist trip around the moon by next year — an ambitious timeline that, if met, could beat a similar mission by NASA.
Anticipating that the Trump administration is focusing on the moon, the space agency recently announced it is considering adding astronauts to the first flight of its Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. That flight, originally scheduled to fly without humans in 2018, would also circle the moon. But as the space agency seeks to move faster under the Trump administration, it is now studying the feasibility of adding crew for a mission that would then occur by 2019.
Obama killed plans for a lunar mission, saying in 2010 that "we've been there before." But the administration's Mars plan was still far from actually delivering humans there, and critics grew frustrated that NASA has not been able to fly humans out of low Earth orbit since the 1970s. A shot around the moon, however, could be feasible, even within a few years.
Blue Origin's proposal, dated Jan. 4, doesn't involve flying humans, but rather is focused on a series of cargo missions. Those could deliver the equipment necessary to help establish a human colony on the moon — unlike the Apollo missions, in which the astronauts left "flags and footprints" and then came home.
NASA already has shown a willingness to work closely with the commercial sector, hiring companies to fly supplies and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station. It is providing technical expertise, but no funding, to SpaceX's plan to fly an uncrewed spacecraft to Mars by 2020.
The prospect of a lunar mission has several companies lining up to provide not just transportation, but also habitats, science experiments and even the ability to mine the moon for resources.
The United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has also been working on plans to create a transportation network to the area around the moon, known as cislunar space.
"I'm excited by the possibilities," said Tory Bruno, the alliance's chief executive. "This administration, near as we can tell, feels a sense of urgency to go out and make things happen, and to have high-profile demonstrations that are along the road map to accomplish these broad goals. … There is an opportunity to begin building that infrastructure right now — within the next four years."
Robert Bigelow, the founder of Bigelow Aerospace, a maker of inflatable space habitats, said his company could create a depot that could orbit the moon by 2020, housing supplies and medial facilities, as well as humans. A smaller version of the possible habitats, known as the BEAM, is docked to the International Space Station, where astronauts have been testing it.
In an interview, Bigelow said he was glad the administration seems to be refocusing on the moon. "Mars is premature at this time. The moon is not," he said. "We have the technology. We have the ability, and the potential for a terrific business case."
At an Aviation Week awards ceremony Thursday evening, Bezos added that the moon could help propel humans even further into space, to destinations such as Mars: "I think that if you go to the moon first, and make the moon your home, then you can get to Mars more easily."
After remaining quiet and obsessively secretive for years, Blue Origin's attempt to partner with NASA is a huge coming out of sorts for the company, which has been funded almost exclusively by Bezos. The paper urges NASA to develop a program that provides "incentives to the private sector to demonstrate a commercial lunar cargo delivery service."
Blue Origin could perform the first lunar mission as early as July 2020, Bezos wrote, but stressed that it could "only be done in partnership with NASA. Our liquid hydrogen expertise and experience with precision vertical landing offer the fastest path to a lunar lander mission. I'm excited about this and am ready to invest my own money alongside NASA to make it happen."
Last year, Blue Origin successfully launched and landed its suborbital rocket, the New Shepard, five times within less than a year, flying just past the 62-mile edge of space and then landing vertically on a landing pad at the company's West Texas facility.
That same technology could be used to land the Blue Moon vehicle on the lunar surface, the company said. Its white paper shows what looks like a modified New Shepard rocket, standing on the moon with an American flag, a NASA logo and Blue Origin's feather symbol.
The company said it plans to land its Blue Moon lunar lander at Shackleton Crater on the moon's south pole. The site has nearly continuous sunlight to provide power through the spacecraft's solar arrays. The company also chose to land there because of the "water ice in the perpetual shadow of the crater's deep crevices."
Water is vital not just for human survival, but also because hydrogen and oxygen in water could be transformed into rocket fuel. The moon, then, is seen as a massive gas station in space.
The Blue Moon spacecraft could carry as much as 10,000 pounds of material and fly atop several different rockets, including NASA's Space Launch System, the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V or its own New Glenn rocket, which is under development and expected to fly by the end of the decade, the company said.
"Once on the surface, the lander's useful payload can be used to conduct science or deploy rovers," the company said. "A robotic arm attached to the lander will deploy to examine the lunar surface with an array of instruments."
The initial landing "is envisioned as the first in a series of increasingly capable missions," including flying samples of lunar ice back to Earth for study.
The company said it could also help deliver the cargo and supplies needed for human settlements.
"Blue Moon is all about cost-effective delivery of mass to the surface of the Moon," Bezos wrote. "Any credible first lunar settlement will require that capability."