Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is working on a landing system that could put astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024 — but it’s also keeping its options open to deliver a ton of cargo to the lunar surface a year before that.
Blue Origin’s chief scientist, Steve Squyres, outlined the current state of plans for an Amazon-like cargo delivery to the moon today during a virtual symposium presented by the University of Washington’s Space Policy and Research Center.
The idea isn’t exactly new: Blue Origin floated its Blue Moon cargo lander concept with the Trump administration in early 2017, even before President Donald Trump formally took office. And a Blue Origin executive mentioned the 2023 date for a cargo landing more than two years ago during a Seattle-area space conference.
But Squyres’ remarks served to confirm that the 2023 mission, which would provide an early test of the technology for the crewed landing system, is still part of Bezos’ grand vision for creating a sustainable human presence on the moon. “We must go back to the moon, and this time to stay,” Bezos told me in 2018.
There’s no indication that NASA has put in its order for a cargo delivery yet, but Squyres said that if the go-ahead is eventually given, the uncrewed mission would target a spot not far away from the site selected for the 2024 crewed landing.
“NASA talks about Artemis base camp as being sort of our initial first foothold on the lunar surface,” he said. “And this is the chance to start doing this. This lander in 2023 can deliver up to 1,000 kilograms, an entire metric ton of cargo, onto the surface. Some of that cargo can be emergency supplies, tools, spare parts, a rover for the crew to drive around in if NASA has it ready in time.”
That could set the stage not only for the landing planned in 2024, but for follow-up missions as well. “Downstream from this, we envision delivering larger crews to the lunar surface, delivering cargo to the lunar surface to build up that permanent presence,” Squyres said.
Blue Origin is working with industry partners — including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — to develop a system that could land astronauts on the moon and bring them back from the lunar surface to their way station in space. The uncrewed cargo lander wouldn’t require the ascent module that Lockheed Martin is building for the crew-capable landing system.
For what it’s worth, SpaceX and Dynetics are also working on lunar landing systems, and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has talked about sending an uncrewed Starship cargo mission to the moon by 2022.
Squyres, who joined Blue Origin last year, is well-acquainted with what’s required for off-Earth robotic landings. During his time at Cornell University, he served as the principal investigator for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rover missions to Mars.
Today Squyres noted that NASA is working on several robotic probes to test the technologies required for Artemis moon expeditions. One such probe is the VIPER rover, which is due for launch to the moon’s south polar region in late 2022 or 2023. VIPER will assess the prospects for extracting water ice that could be used as a resource for lunar operations.
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Squyres said technology demonstrations targeting the extraction and use of lunar water are a “very, very active area of research right now” for NASA and its partners. But he said more innovations will be needed to support a sustainable human presence on the moon.
“When you talk about what you’re going to build on the lunar surface, I think that the most immediate need is for landing and launch pads that will make flight operations safe at a base where there are people and infrastructure in place,” he said.
Without such pads, rocket-powered touchdowns and takeoffs were likely to blast lunar rocks and soil all over the place, Squyres said.
Lunar soil, also known as regolith, could be used as a building material on the moon, said Shirley Dyke, who heads Purdue University’s Resilient Extra-Terrestrial Habitats Institute. But she said a huge knowledge gap would have to be filled first.
“We don’t have that much information about the regolith,” Dyke said. “We know basic properties and basic contents, I should say, but what we do not know is the variability — the range of different possible materials as you go around different locations on the moon.”
Dyke said lunar builders will have to find a substitute for at least one basic ingredient used in Earth-style construction.
“There’s this magical material here on Earth called Portland cement,” she said. “And that does not exist on the moon.”