Billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos unveiled on Thursday a mockup of a lunar lander being built by his Blue Origin rocket company and touted his moon goals in a strategy aimed at capitalizing on the Trump administration's renewed push to establish a lunar outpost in just five years.
The world's richest man and Amazon.com Inc's chief executive waved an arm and a black drape behind him dropped to reveal the two-story-tall mockup of the unmanned lander dubbed Blue Moon during an hour-long presentation at Washington's convention center, just several blocks from the White House.
The lander will be able to deliver payloads to the lunar surface, deploy up to four smaller rovers and shoot out satellites to orbit the moon, Bezos told the audience, which included NASA officials and potential Blue Moon customers.
His media event followed Vice President Mike Pence's March 26 announcement that NASA plans to build a space platform in lunar orbit and put American astronauts on the moon's south pole by 2024 "by any means necessary," four years earlier than previously planned.
"I love this," Bezos said of Pence's timeline. "We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago. It's time to go back to the moon, this time to stay."
While Bezos went out of his way to praise Pence's timeline, the billionaire has been the target of repeated criticism from President Donald Trump, who has referred to him as Jeff "Bozo." Bezos also owns the Washington Post, which Trump has frequently targeted in his broadsides against the news media.
In their lunar ambitions, however, Trump and Bezos are very much in harmony. Trump in 2017 made a return to the moon a high priority for the U.S. space program, saying a mission to put astronauts back on the lunar surface would establish a foundation for an eventual journey to put humans on Mars. If re-elected next year, 2024 would be Trump's final full year in office.
At his presentation, Bezos unveiled a model of one of the proposed rovers, roughly the size of a golf cart, and presented a new rocket engine called BE-7, which can blast 10,000 pounds (4,535 kg) of thrust.
Blue Origin’s ambitions
Privately held Blue Origin, based in Kent, Washington, is developing its New Shepard rocket for short space tourism trips and a heavy-lift launch rocket called New Glenn for satellite launch contracts.
A Blue Origin executive told Reuters last month New Glenn rocket would be ready by 2021. Bezos on Thursday said launching humans on suborbital flights would take place later this year on New Shepard.
Blue Origin has previously discussed a human outpost on the moon.
During his presentation, which sounded at times more like a professorial lecture than a business plan, Bezos did not address a specific launch schedule for the lander or a specific mission for it.
NASA has set its sights on the moon's south pole, a region believed to hold enough recoverable ice water for use in synthesizing additional rocket fuel as well as for drinking water to sustain astronauts.
Bezos, intent on moving Blue Origin closer to commercialization, underscored his broader vision of enabling a future in which millions of people live and work in space. He mentioned two important issues: reducing launch costs and using resources already in space.
"One of the most important things we know about the moon today is that there's water there," Bezos said. "It's in the form of ice. It's in the permanently shadowed craters on the poles of the moon."
His announcement came about two months before the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, and he began his presentation with video of that event.
Bezos did not address his company's Twitter post last month teasing the event with a picture of the ship used by explorer Ernest Shackleton on a 1914 expedition to Antarctica. Industry sources said the image was a likely reference to an impact crater on the lunar south pole sharing the man's name, raising speculation that Blue Origin's lander was targeting that spot.
His vision is shared by competing billionaire-backed private space ventures like Elon Musk's SpaceX and aerospace incumbents like United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin.