The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump wants to return to the moon. Jeff Bezos is among those vying to help.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, reveals a model of Blue Origin's new lunar lander and gives an update on his vision of space exploration. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, spoke Thursday at Walter E. Washington Convention Center. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In the six weeks since Vice President Pence announced a crash program to get humans to the moon within five years, the White House has provided no details on how it would achieve that and no cost estimates.

The rocket NASA wants to use to get there has suffered years of delays and is billions over budget, and NASA lacks the space suits necessary for astronauts to walk on the moon.

But the growing space industry has sensed an opportunity in the White House’s passion for space, and on Thursday, Jeff Bezos made his pitch to join the effort.

In an hour-long speech in Washington’s convention center, Bezos unveiled a life-size mock-up of the lander his company, Blue Origin, is developing to ferry cargo and supplies to the surface of the moon in advance of a human landing. And he made an emotional case for humanity to expand out into the cosmos, a passion he has held since he was a child and has called the most important work he is doing today. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Bezos lauded the White House’s goal of getting humans to the lunar surface quickly.

“I love this,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. For those of you doing the arithmetic at home, that’s 2024. And we can help meet that timeline, but only because we started three years ago. It’s time to go back to the moon — this time to stay.”

Companies in the Cosmos: Billionaire entrepreneurs and companies are defining a new space age

Bezos did not say what the lander, called “Blue Moon,” would cost or when it would be ready to fly. He did not take questions after the speech.

Bezos’s speech comes at a time when NASA is scrambling to meet a White House mandate to speed up the agency’s plans to get humans to the surface of the moon for the first time since 1972. Pence tasked NASA with achieving the goal “by any means necessary” and promised it would receive the resources needed to pull off such a bold mission.

But in the weeks since then, members of Congress have grown increasingly skeptical. Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, accused the administration of speeding up the timeline for political purposes since it would come amid the 2024 presidential campaign.

At a hearing Wednesday, Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), the chair of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, also weighed in. Horn said although she supported “the desire to invigorate our human exploration efforts,” she blasted the administration, saying, “the lack of planning, evident so far, is no way to run our nation’s human space exploration program.”

She said the mandate to land humans on the moon by 2024 instead of 2028, as was previously planned, “left NASA in a tizzy — scrambling to develop a plan and hastening to pull together a budget amendment that still has not been delivered to Congress, and upending groundwork with international partners on future exploration goals.”

Mark Sirangelo, a special adviser to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, said at the hearing that answers would be forthcoming. “We understand the delay is frustrating,” he said. “But this is a big challenge, and we want to get it right.”

Virgin Galactic's quest for space tourism

The White House’s mandate comes with a twist that makes the already complicated feat far more difficult.

Instead of just going to the lunar surface and coming home, as the Apollo program did in the late 1960s and early ’70s, NASA intends to build an outpost that would stay in orbit around the moon. Astronauts would fly first to that outpost, known as the Gateway, and then fly on spacecraft to the lunar surface and back.

Although no contracts have been awarded for any parts of the Gateway, several companies have made pitches to build various elements of it. Recently Lockheed Martin, Boeing, the Sierra Nevada Corporation and others have said they could help meet the White House’s 2024 timeline.

“We need to be bending metal next year, which means tooling already has to be in house,” said Rob Chambers, Lockheed’s director of human spaceflight strategy, said recently. “And I hope somebody ordered a bunch of aluminum.”

In his speech, Bezos said a larger variant of Blue Moon could also carry a separate spacecraft that could be used to transport astronauts to and from the lunar surface. But he provided few details about when it would be ready and how many people it could transport.

Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, has said the agency wants to land on the moon’s South Pole, near Shackleton Crater, where there is water ice. Water is key for sustaining human life, but its elements, hydrogen and oxygen, can also be used as rocket propellant. So the moon is seen by many as a gas station in space. The moon’s south pole also has near continuous sunlight, allowing for solar energy.

Bezos first pitched NASA two years ago when he detailed plans to build the lunar lander for cargo and urged the space agency to focus on exploring the lunar surface.

NASA wants to get to the moon as fast as possible but other countries are racing there too

At the time, Bezos told The Post he was ready to invest his own money “alongside NASA to make it happen.”

Bezos spent the first part of his speech outlining his long-term vision, in which one day, as he’s often said, there will be “millions of people are living and working in space.” The Earth’s resources are limited, while the population and its appetite for energy, continue to grow. The answer, he said is to go out into the cosmos and exploit the limitless resources there.

“There is no Plan B,” he said. “We have to save this planet.”

Bezos is an acolyte of the late futurist and Princeton University physics professor Gerard O’Neill, whose vision was to build massive colonies in space that could house thousands of people at once in conditions similar to those on Earth — but better.

“These are really pleasant places to live,” Bezos said, showing a rendering. “This is Maui on its best day all year long. No rain. No storms. No earthquakes.”