Thursday, 16 May 2019

Blue Moon

Yesterday, Jeff Bezos (of Amazon fame) gave an hour-long presentation about his views on the future of mankind and space. This might seem like an odd topic for the world's richest man, except for the fact he is investing a billion dollars of his own money into a space company, Blue Origin.

The presentation is well worth watching in full:

Some thoughts on the presentation:

The presentation was slick and well-done. Bezos comes across as very knowledgeable about the topic: which is slightly surprising given the number of hats he wears. His presentation skills are good (at least when compared to the sometimes-stuttering Elon Musk).

We are not the intended audience for the presentation; Bezos was trying to talk directly to the movers and shakers in the US government. The Trump administration want to get Americans back to the Moon before the end of a possible second term in office, and Bezos wanted them to know that they have a system under development that could fit directly into their current plans.

The presentation had four broad sections:
  • Define the problem: mankind's resource and energy usage is increasing. Unless something changes, this means eventually they will have to be rationed.
  • Define a vision of the solution: take mankind off the Earth via things such as O'Neill cylinders and the use of in-space resources to replace Earthbound primary industries.
  • Define the strategy: build the infrastructure that will allow others to fulfil that vision.
  • Define the tactics: initially, rockets such as New Glenn and the Blue Moon lander.
The first three sections all seemed logical: you can argue for other solutions, but his vision encompasses one possible solution. He is also willing to put vast sums of his own money towards the first steps in securing his vision.

The highlight of the presentation was the unveiling of the Blue Moon lunar lander (see This was impressive. They had obviously thought deeply about the details: from high-bandwidth laser communications, to the landing angle (i.e. platform stability) of 15 degrees; to using lifeboat-style davits to unload from the cargo platform on the top, to looking at landing accuracy and the issues caused by the debris from the rocket blast on landing. 
Bezos also unveiled a new liquid hydrogen / liquid oxygen (hydrolox) engine, the BE-7. rIn this section, Bezos mentioned that the technology of both the engine and the Blue Moon lander were direct consequences of the New Shepard sub-orbital craft that his company is current;ly developing, and which they hope will take tourists to the edge of space later this year.

This explains many of the criticisms that the New Shepard system gets: it is part of a plan to gain liquid hydrogen and vertical landing experience. Personally, I had been expecting them to use the existing BE3 engine (used in New Shepard) for their Moon lander, or to use another company (e.g. Masten and something based on Xeus technology - see

The modularity of the Blue Moon system is slightly reminiscent of the Apollo Lander. This was expanded slightly for the J-class missions (Apollo 15,16 and 17), but much larger enhancements were proposed under the 'Apollo Extensions System' - for instance to create a long-stay lunar shelter (see These developments sadly never occurred because the program was cancelled.

They are partnering with others for payloads, something I see as a positive and in line with his strategy. I also like the fact they've formed a science advisory board, and the 'kids club' could be either a damp squib or an inspired move - depending on how much effort they put into it.

Some minor criticisms

  • It would have been good to mention SpaceX wrt vertical landing, and perhaps even congratulate them, whilst specifying the differences in their vision, goals and strategy. I can understand why they did not, but the elephant in the room is too large to ignore.
  • New Glenn is not fully reusable; only the first stage is. This was glossed over in the discussions wrt cost.
  • It would have seemed good to thank and congratulate NASA. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are building on science done by NASA before, during and after the Apollo landings: this would be unachievable without that science and the general infrastructure.
  • The Blue Moon mock-up showed on stage was for an unmanned craft, and yet he also showed a picture of an enhanced, crewed version. In my view it is doubtful that a crewed version will be ready for 2024.
  • Liquid hydrogen is nasty stuff, and it took NASA and various militaries years to understand how to handle it reliably. Blue Origin have developed good knowledge on this through their New Shepard rocket, but keeping liquid hydrogen liquid in space and avoiding boil-off is *really* difficult. Although he somewhat addressed this in the talk, it is IMV the biggest issue facing the project.


Can Blue Origin get a large lander to the Moon in five years? It's tight, but probably. Can they get a crewed lander onto the Moon in five years? That is *much* tighter, and I'd give them only a 20% chance of that (figure plucked out of the air).

The fact they've had the BE-7 engine under development for three years shows they're looking at the problems, and are developing solutions out of public view. That might even extend to other problems I foresee, for instance EVA-capable spacesuits or life support - one billion dollars a year buys a lot of skunkworks.

The Blue Moon lander seems utterly (almost boringly) feasible. liquid hydrogen storage issues aside.

Good luck to them.