Blue Origin targets moon landing by 2023 as an early step toward lunar settlement

A.C. Charania
A.C. Charania, Blue Origin’s business development director, addresses the NewSpace conference with a picture of his company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, looming in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is laying out a plan to support the creation of permanent settlements on the moon, starting with a lunar landing mission within the next five years.

The Kent, Wash.-based company’s roadmap was laid out most recently last week during the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace conference in Renton, Wash.

Blue Origin’s business development director, A.C. Charania, said the company’s Blue Moon program is “our first step to developing a lunar landing capability for the country, for other customers internationally, to be able to land multi metric tons on the lunar surface.”

“Any permanent human presence on the lunar surface will require such a capability,” he said.

Charania said “we’re actively working on the descent stage for Blue Moon, the capabilities, the partnerships that are required to enable that service … to start going back to the moon with larger and larger payloads.”

Blue Moon could help answer longstanding scientific questions about the moon’s origin and evolution, delve into lunar resource identification and extraction, and “enable human lunar return,” Charania said.

Charania told GeekWire that the first Blue Moon landing could take place even before 2023.

Blue Origin’s executives have talked about a five-year time frame for lunar landings several times over the past year, but Charania’s comments made clear that the company is looking for international partnerships as well as support from NASA.

“Blue Moon is on our roadmap,” Charania said, “and because of our scale, because of what we see from the government, we brought it a little bit forward in time. I think we are very excited to now implement this long-term commercial solution with NASA partnership.”

In May, Australia’s quoted another Blue Origin executive, Ted McFarland, as suggesting that Bezos and international representatives could announce a back-to-the-moon initiative in September at the International Astronautical Congress in Germany. (German news media quoted IAC officials as saying they haven’t yet heard from Blue Origin about that idea.)

NASA is already ramping up its plans for lunar landings, in response to initiatives endorsed by the Trump administration. This month, the space agency is due to solicit proposals for commercial lunar payload services, with proposals due in mid-August and the first landings due by the end of next year.

Landers capable of putting several tons on the lunar surface are in NASA’s roadmap for the early 2020s, which meshes with Blue Origin’s time frame. Other companies, such as Masten Space Systems and Moon Express, are also working on medium- to heavy-class lunar lander concepts.

Blue Origin has lots more on its agenda for the next few years, backed with a billion dollars a year from Bezos:

  • Its suborbital spaceship, New Shepard, is in the midst of uncrewed flight tests and could start carrying test passengers by the end of 2018.

  • Its BE-4 rocket engine, fueled by liquefied natural gas, is being manufactured in Kent and tested at the company’s West Texas facility.

  • Its orbital-class New Glenn rocket, which will make use of BE-4 rocket engines, is under development at Blue Origin’s Florida factory and is due to have its first launch in 2020. Several satellite launch deals already have been struck for the early 2020s.

Charania said Blue Origin now has more than 1,500 employees, which is double the figure from two years ago. The company’s website lists more than 230 job openings, including spots for training coordinators, flight controllers and an astronaut experience manager.

Blue Origin hasn’t yet set the price for suborbital space trips, but it’s expected to start selling tickets next year.

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