In May, Jeff Bezos, clad in a gray blazer and jeans, took to a convention center stage in Washington, DC on behalf of his company. No, not the one with same-day shipping and Prime deals or the storied daily newspaper, but Blue Origin, his aerospace enterprise based in Kent. For 51 minutes the Amazon CEO monologued about space. And midway through he unveiled Blue Moon, a massive 33,000-pound lunar lander destined for the sky. “It’s time to go back to the moon,” he declared, “and this time, stay.”
Lunar exploration goes back 60 years this month, when, in the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union crash-landed a spherical space probe known as Luna 2, the first man-made vehicle to reach the moon’s surface. A decade later the U.S. planted its flag on the same dusty landscape. The last crewed lunar mission was in 1972. Now, Bezos is determined to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024—permanently. He hopes to lead a new generation of privately owned spaceflight companies and, in the process, reinvigorate the country’s existing space program.
Bezos’s obsession with the tide-controlling orb in the sky is all about its convenient distance, says Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser for The Planetary Society. At only 238,900 miles away from Earth, the moon’s round trip communication takes three seconds, whereas on a planet like Mars, which is situated 34 million miles away at its closest point, transmission can take upwards of 24 minutes. The moon is the most logical first step, he says. “It’s right there, hanging above us, asking for attention.” And Bezos is anything but inattentive.
For the past 19 years, Bezos has quietly bankrolled Blue Origin, investing $1 billion of his Amazon shares annually to finance his dream of colonizing our solar system. He’s hardly the only billionaire fascinated with space. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Robert Bigelow have also invested significant chunks of their fortunes to start companies dedicated to galactic travel and exploration—heating up the space race like never before. What makes Blue Origin different is its focus on developing reusable launch vehicles, which could one day significantly reduce the hefty price tag that comes with shooting ourselves through the atmosphere. It’s ventures like these that could help push the aerospace industry to new heights.
“These companies can take risks that government-funded organizations just can’t,” says Tom Frei, a former rocket engineer whose main gig these days involves lavender farming in Woodinville. As a 26-year veteran of the industry he’s witnessed firsthand the bureaucratic limitations NASA has faced. With every new administration, the agency has had to some degree start from scratch, adjusting to different leaders’ visions, restructuring its goals, and avoiding failure at all costs. While billionaire-backed companies are bringing renewed attention to the prospects of living in space, they can’t trailblaze alone.
Former NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, for one, believes it has to be a group effort. The future of space travel relies on the willingness of ventures like Blue Origin to work with NASA and the U.S. government. “Without a long-term, collaborative vision,” says Musgrave, “nothing’s going to happen.”