Thursday, May 16, 2019

Bezos, Blue Origin Reveal Their Moon Lander

While I've covered the commercial space flights of SpaceX, I've had less to say about our neighbor up the road, Blue Origin.  (While out around the neighborhoods, I recall seeing a guy in a Blue Origin tee-shirt).  Last week, Jeff Bezos revealed his plans and vision for his rocket company Blue Origin according to that large piece in Ars Technica.
The world's richest person, Jeff Bezos, unveiled his sweeping vision for humanity on Thursday afternoon in a Washington D.C. ballroom.  With the lights dimmed, Bezos spoke on stage for an hour, outlining plans for his rocket company, Blue Origin, and how it will pave the way to space for future generations.

We have seen bits and pieces of Bezos' vision to use the resources of space to save Earth and make it a garden for humans before. But this is the first time he has stitched it together in such a comprehensive and radical narrative, starting with reusable rockets and ending with gargantuan, cylindrical habitats in space where millions of people could live. This was the moment when Bezos finally pulled back the curtain, in totality, to reveal his true ambitions for spaceflight. This is where he would like to see future generations one day live.
The highlight of the talk (from my standpoint) is that Bezos unveiled their planned lunar lander called (what else?) Blue Moon.   The base configuration is capable of delivering up to 3.6 tons to the lunar surface.  It's envisioned as a lander - that means one way only - but there's also a configuration that has "stretch tanks," and could carry up to 6.5 tons to the lunar surface.  This would be large enough for a crewed ascent vehicle, pictured here. They just say that will be "built by another company".

Ars reports that Blue Origin is being funded by Bezos personally to the tune of about $1 Billion per year.  They point out that he didn't say whether he would fund the development of Blue Moon without NASA contracts.

The rest of the talk focused on Bezos' vision for the future.  Everyone has probably heard that his (presumably) friendly rival, Elon Musk at SpaceX, envisions colonizing Mars.  Musk wants to terraform Mars: turn Mars green and vibrant to make humanity a multi-planet species and provide a backup plan in case of calamity on Earth.  Bezos wants to preserve Earth at all costs, saying "there is no Plan B."

Instead of moving off to Mars, Bezos is an advocate of colonies in space.  Not International Space Station style; not even rotating wheel-in-space from the movie 2001-style.  Those are thousands of times too small.  Instead, he imagines colonies of millions of people living in permanent colonies in space.  About a million people per colony.
Other worlds in the Solar System lack Earth's atmosphere and gravity. At most, they could support perhaps a few billion people, Bezos said. The answer is not other planets or moons, he said, but rather artificial worlds or colonies in space known as O'Neill cylinders.

These are named for their creator, Gerard O'Neill, who was a professor at Princeton University where Bezos attended college in the early 1980s. In his book The High Frontier, O'Neill popularized the idea of free-floating, cylindrical space colonies that could have access to ample solar energy. Bezos was hooked then and became president of the campus chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

And he is still hooked today, imagining up to 1 million humans living in each cylinder built from asteroid materials and other space resources. Each environment would be climate controlled, with cities, farms, mountains, or beaches. "This is Maui on its best day all year long," Bezos said. "No rain. No earthquakes. People are going to want to live here." And when they need to, they could easily fly back to Earth.
I read the first book I linked to (Colonies in Space) and it was also about O'Neill's ideas of permanent civilization in space.  It's a bold vision, if not a little short of colonizing another world.  As he points out, though, without access to materials from space such as metals from asteroids, water and other fuels that weren't hauled into orbit from the Earth, neither colonization is likely to go far.  While the piece yesterday talked about massive amounts of petroleum here on Earth, the first molecule of oil on Mars has yet to be found.  (Assuming it's there).  It goes without saying that none of this goes anywhere without low cost access to space, something that, to his credit, Bezos has been pursuing all along, as has Musk.
Bezos said he believes that—if this generation builds the infrastructure needed to enable humans to get into space and develop an economy there—future generations will pick up the ball and run. "People are so creative once they're unleashed," Bezos said.

One of five artist's conceptions of the kind of O'Neill cylinder colonies Blue Origin wants to see built. 


  1. Interesting. I think we need both Bezos' and Musk's vision carried out; we need the non-planetary space colonies/habitats and to colonize Mars and any of the giant planet moons that we can.

  2. Maybe...but living and working in space is dangerous, complicated, and absurdly expensive. It will take a lot more than billions to pull it off, and sci-fi aside, I think that the solution is fusion energy. Once we have that problem licked, life on the third rock and in space would be easier.

    1. The biggest issue I have with what Bezos talks about is that it seems to rely on photovoltaics. The limit there is that at our distance from the sun is around 1200 W per square yard, and I don't think that's enough to run a technological civilization.

      Fusion is how the universe runs, but fission will do, too. I'm a bit pessimistic about fusion reactors simply because they've been "20 years from now" for the last nearly 50 years I can remember. Someday it will work, but I wouldn't build something expecting a fusion reactor to be available for it. But Bezos' dream won't be going up for 50 to 100 years, anyway.

    2. I agree that nuclear fusion is what it is going to take to make the leap like Bezos and Musk want to take. I did a little research on nuclear fusion propulsion. What little I could find indicated that there are some very workable solutions; the catch is that you need the fusion power source to power the fusion engines.

      As to the time frame for nuclear fusion, I agree that it always is just 20 years away. My former employer, Lockheed Martin, is fooling around with it (Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor(CFR)) and seems to believe there is a nearer term answer than 50 or 100 years, like within the next 5 or 10 years. A former co-worker of mine had been a researcher on a fusion project at Princeton back in the 80's or 90's as a doctoral student. He claimed they were starting to get promising results when the program which had a lot of government funding all of a sudden lost that funding and was shut down. He claims that from some things he was told there was involvement by big companies that had big stakes in other forms of energy like oil and coal. I know conspiracy theory and all but he is not that unhinged a person.

  3. There are three problems that cannot be overcome for planetary based fusion reactors. Safety. If you have a malfunction in a big fusion reactor most of the time you get a 50 megaton H bomb. Or Fukushima X one billion. Terrorist. See above. Shielding. ANY major working fusion reactor will produce more hard radiation per day than all the plutonium reactors on earth combined. You could put a big one on one side of a rock in space and live on the other. You could put it miles away from your Hab. in orbital space. But you have no place on earth where you could plant one without a self made disaster. Those are built in problems with fusion reactors that no amount of time or research will fix. Like solar power and wind power they are the pipe dreams of Hippy's. Fusion and solar are both already here. G_d built them right next door. Ring worlds and Mars Habitats and Moon bases are the dreams of would be kings, and fantasy novelist. It may happen if enough people want it badly enough to die for generations to get it. But we will need a completely different human society to get there. The human race we have now, can't do it. The ones in power are the worst. Until they change fundamentally "we ain't goin nowhere"----Ray

  4. Massive space colonies are and will remain a fantasy as long as we are stuck using chemical energy to climb out of earths gravity well. For every pound you need to put into orbit you must burn about ten pounds of fuel....and that pound of cargo INCLUDES the vehicle carrying the cargo. Thus it costs THOUSANDS of dollars per kilogram to put something in orbit. Want to go farther than close Earth orbit? You need even MORE fuel. Planning and scheming for space travel and habitation is pointless till we find a viable method of getting MASSIVE amounts of weight into orbit at an economically feasible price.

  5. Oh yeah, Bezos? What will you do when the Space Balls' maid shows up?

    How many man hours would be required to construct a fully functional O'Neill cylinder even 1/10th the size of what is depicted? That's not including procurement of material.


  6. I think the diffuse shadow-free lighting, seeing stars during full daylight, the clouds to the side, the blue sky behind those clouds, the lack of clouds at the top, and the strength of materials necessary to build such an object are all the painter's fantasy.

    It's far more practical to build Wakanda in Africa, instead.