Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin space venture go all in on moon settlements

Blue Moon lander
An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander on the lunar surface. (Blue Origin Illustration)

LOS ANGELES — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos says his Blue Origin space venture will work with NASA as well as the European Space Agency to create a settlement on the moon.

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And even if Blue Origin can’t strike public-private partnerships, Bezos will do what needs to be done to make it so, he said here at the International Space Development Conference on Friday night.

Bezos laid out his vision for lunar settlement during a fireside chat with yours truly, which took place just after he received the National Space Society’s Gerard K. O’Neill Memorial Award.

In the short run, Blue Origin’s objective is to reduce the cost of access to space — initially with its New Shepard suborbital spaceship, and then with its orbital-class New Glenn rocket in the 2020s.

In the long run, Bezos’ vision is to smooth the way for millions of people working in space. Those people just might live and work inside huge spinning habitats — a concept that was proposed decades ago by O’Neill, a Princeton physicist whose ideas on space settlement fueled Bezos’ passion for the final frontier..

Jeff Bezos and Alan Boyle
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos tells a take at the International Space Development Conference that draws a laugh from GeekWire’s Alan Boyle. (Keith Zacharski / In the Barrel Photo)

The way Bezos sees it, moving heavy industry into solar-powered space outposts is the only way to ensure that our planet can cope with the rising demand for energy, and the stress that growing populations will put on Earth’s environment.

“We will have to leave this planet,” Bezos told me. “We’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better. We’ll come and go, and the people who want to stay will stay.”

Earth will be zoned for residential and light industrial use, while heavy industry will be moved off the planet and powered by 24/7 solar power, he said.

“The Earth is not a very good place to do heavy industry. It’s convenient for us right now,” Bezos said. “But in the not-too-distant future — I’m talking decades, maybe 100 years — it’ll start to be easier to do a lot of the things that we currently do on Earth in space, because we’ll have so much energy.”

So what comes between the short run and the long run? That’s where the moon plays a part.

Just as Mars is always at center stage for SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, the moon looms as a focus for Bezos. Even before the Trump administration officially pivoted to targeting the moon and its environs, Bezos was talking about using robots to build a lunar city for eventual human occupants.

During Friday’s chat, Bezos pointed out that the moon is conveniently located, reachable in just a couple of days with the right rocket. Scientists have determined that it has deposits of water ice near the poles that could be converted into drinkable water, breathable air and propellants for refuelable rockets.

“It’s almost like somebody set this up for us,” Bezos said.

To facilitate a return to the moon, Blue Origin has a lunar lander on the drawing boards that’s designed to be capable of delivery 5 tons of payload to the lunar surface. That’s hefty enough to be used for transporting people — and with enough support, it could start flying by the mid-2020s.

Blue Origin has proposed building its Blue Moon lander under the terms of a public-private partnership with NASA. “By the way, we will do that, even if NASA doesn’t do it,” Bezos said. “We’ll do it eventually. We could do it a lot faster through a partnership.”

The space agency is just starting to consider its options for a heavy-duty lunar lander — and Blue Origin is sure to face competition from other companies, including SpaceX as well as United Launch Alliance and Masten Space Systems.

It’s important to point out that moon settlement isn’t just a NASA thing. Bezos told me he loves the European Space Agency’s approach, known as the Moon Village.

“The Moon Village concept has a nice property in that it basically just says, look, everybody builds their own lunar outpost, but let’s do it close to each other. That way … you can go over to the European Union lunar outpost and say, ‘I’m out of eggs, what have you got?’ … Obviously I’m being silly with the eggs, but there would be real things, like, ‘Could I have some oxygen?’ ”

Read more: Jeff Bezos and Amazon save ‘The Expanse’

So how far is Blue Origin willing to go? Bezos has already committed the company to build rockets and landers. How about rovers, habitats and all the other hardware that a moon base will need?

“We’ll do anything we need to do,” Bezos said. “I hope we don’t need to do any of it. I want other people to do it. But if need be, we’ll do it.”

Bezos is in this for the long haul. He’s the world’s richest person, with a net worth of more than $130 billion, and he’s cashing in a billion dollars’ worth of Amazon stock annually to fund Blue Origin.

“One of two things will happen,” he said. “Either other people will take over the vision, or I’ll run out of money. Those are the two possibilities.”

“I think it’ll be a while before you run out of money,” I told him.

“Let’s hope so,” he said with a smile.

Update for 11:39 p.m. PT May 28: I’ve revised the description of O’Neill habitats to make it more general.

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