Jeff Bezos’ Shot at the Moon? Blue Origin to Announce Vision for Space

Jeff Bezos’ Shot at the Moon? Blue Origin to Announce Vision for Space

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — What does a 21st-century rocket company have to do with an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica more than a century ago?

Last month, the rocket company, Blue Origin, tweeted without explanation a photograph of the Endurance, the ship that Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed to Antarctica in 1914. Shackleton was aiming to make the first land crossing of the continent.

Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon who also owns Blue Origin, will explain what this means on Thursday. At an event in the nation’s capital, the company announced, Mr. Bezos will provide, “an update on our progress and share our vision of going to space to benefit Earth.”

Shackleton failed. The Endurance became trapped in the ice for months until floes crushed the hull, and the ship sank. But all 28 men on the Endurance survived their ordeal and were rescued, making the expedition an epic and inspiring failure.

Mr. Bezos is likely planning something that he hopes will be more successful.

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What are Blue Origin’s goals?

Mr. Bezos founded his rocket company in 2000, which means that it has been around longer than the other, better-known billionaire rocket company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Mr. Musk started SpaceX in 2002.

But for the first decade and a half of its existence, Blue Origin operated quietly, saying almost nothing beyond an occasional blog post by Mr. Bezos. When one of its rockets crashed during a test flight in 2011, a week passed before Mr. Bezos acknowledged the failure.

In 2016, Mr. Bezos finally invited journalists for a visit to Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., south of Seattle. There he described his vision: millions of people living and working in space, as humanity would look elsewhere in the solar system for energy and raw materials. He expected that much of the world’s heavy manufacturing would move off Earth, allowing the planet to return to a more pristine state.

Mr. Bezos noted that he had studied and thought about rockets since he was 5 years old. “I never expected to have the resources to start a space company,” he said. “I won a lottery ticket called Amazon.com.”

Two years ago, Mr. Bezos said he would be selling $1 billion a year in Amazon stock to finance Blue Origin. Mr. Bezos will retain control of Blue Origin after his divorce this year.

What has Blue Origin done so far?

Blue Origin has become less secretive. It now regularly live-streams test flights of its suborbital New Shepard rocket. That spacecraft is designed to take space tourists on short hops into space, where passengers will experience just a few minutes of weightlessness before New Shepard’s passenger capsule returns to Earth’s surface.

The company said during its latest test — the 11th — that the first flights carrying people will occur later this year.

Outside NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Blue Origin has built a new factory for manufacturing a larger rocket, New Glenn, that is scheduled to take satellites, and possibly people, to orbit beginning in 2021. There is mention of an even larger rocket, New Armstrong, but no details have been released.

How do the plans tie in with Shackleton?

It probably has to do with the South Pole — on the moon.

In the last couple of years, the Trump administration has revived plans to send astronauts back to the moon, and NASA last year announced a road map that included turning to commercial companies for sending experiments and cargo to the lunar surface.

Officials at Blue Origin have described Blue Moon, an uncrewed robotic lander that would do just that. Last year, Blue Origin received $13 million from NASA to work on technologies needed for a moon lander.

NASA is aiming to explore craters near the moon’s South Pole where water ice is believed to exist. The water molecules can be broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen, which could be used for rocket fuel. The resources would also be handy for astronauts — water for drinking, oxygen for breathing.

Those intriguing craters by the pole include one that is 14 miles wide, 2.5 miles deep and is named Shackleton.

Do other space companies have moon plans?

NASA plans to hire companies to take small payloads to the moon within the next year or so. Many of these companies believe there is a viable business carrying payloads to the moon, although none have been to the moon yet.

A low-cost approach to landing on the moon is risky; SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit, attempted to land on the moon in April, but crashed.

Other companies will be competing to build pieces of Gateway, an outpost that NASA plans to put into orbit around the moon as a way station for astronauts headed to the moon’s surface. NASA is also asking for ideas from companies for astronaut-carrying landers.

Last year, SpaceX announced that a Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, had signed up for a trip that would go past the moon without landing on it, and swing back to Earth.

Can anyone make money on the moon?

Under the Outer Space Treaty, no one can own a piece of the moon (or any other piece of the solar system except Earth). But, at least under the reading of some lawyers, companies can sell what they take from the moon.

With NASA, the European Space Agency and others aiming to go to the moon, government business could provide a boon to companies hoping to set up shop there, but how well they will do is still speculative.

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