Jeff Bezos details his moon colony ambitions

Jeff Bezos has big plans for the moon, if he can just get there. With a little elbow grease our trusty satellite could become a platform from which to build out the space industry — and while a partnership with NASA, the ESA and others would be best, Blue Origin will do it solo if it has to.

Speaking at the Space Development Conference in Los Angeles with the inimitable Alan Boyle, Bezos chatted about the idea of making the moon a center for heavy industry, which he thinks will help conserve resources here on Earth.

“In the not-too-distant future — I’m talking decades, maybe 100 years,” he said, “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. We will have to leave this planet. We’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better.”

There’s plenty that Earth will still have to provide — minerals and resources that can’t be sourced from the moon — but in other ways a lunar manufacturing base is a no-brainer, he explained.

There’s sunlight 24/7 for solar cells, water sequestered beneath the surface, and plenty of lovely regolith to build with (just don’t breath in the dust). “It’s almost like somebody set this up for us,” he said.

Bezos has already proposed a public-private partnership between Blue Origin and NASA to create a moon lander to test the possibilities of lunar manufacturing and habitation. It would be capable of delivering five tons of payload to the moon’s surface, more than enough to get some serious work done there.

That’s all still highly speculative, of course, and the rockets produced by the company are all still strictly suborbital. New Glenn, the orbital successor to the smaller-scale New Shepard, is scheduled to fly in the 2020s, but clearly Bezos sees no reason to wait until then to start working on what it may eventually bring to the moon.

When the time comes, he hopes that lunar residence and industry will be a shared privilege, with countries working together in a “lunar village” and combining their strengths rather than testing them against one another.

In the meantime he’s funding Blue Origin with his own money to pursue these lofty ambitions. And he’ll keep going, he said, until someone else picks up the ball or he goes broke — and he and Alan agreed that the latter seems unlikely.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard skims space in successful 8th test launch

Blue Origin conducted the 8th launch of its New Shepard sub-orbital rocket and crew capsule today out in Texas, and things couldn’t have gone better for the growing space tourism company. The rocket ascended into a cloudless sky, reaching a max velocity of about 2,200 MPH, and delivered its capsule to the edge of space, where its occupant, “Mannquin Skywalker,” will have had a lovely view of the Earth.

New Shepard isn’t meant to deliver things into orbit, of course; Blue Origin has a different purpose and technology from the likes of SpaceX, focusing on giving people a quick, safe lift into space followed by a period of weightlessness and a pleasant descent.

That’s what was demonstrated today, and you can watch the whole thing live in the video below — the pre-launch coverage starts about half an hour in, and liftoff is at the 1h10m mark.

Everything went smoothly from liftoff to touchdown. I love watching the altitude graph filling in slowly at first, then blasting upward as the rocket gradually accelerates. After main-engine cutoff, which occurs just after crossing the Karmann Line, which indicates you’ve entered space, and anyone inside would experience weightlessness for about a minute and a half as the capsule slows down. Apogee for this flight was 347,000 feet, or about 106,000 meters.

While Mannequin Skywalker was enjoying microgravity, the booster was returning to Earth at high speed — over 2,600 MPH. The drag brake deploys around 100,000 feet up, reducing speed to a more manageable 370 MPH before the booster re-ignites at 2,500 feet and brings itself down to a hover landing.

This is one of the most obvious differences to a viewer between New Shepard’s booster and the Falcon 9s; New Shepard has more control over its thrust, allowing for a highly controlled landing where it could even float for a bit if necessary. The larger Falcon 9 has to land using much more powerful thrust, meaning if they aren’t careful, they might just take off again. It’s kind of like the difference between having to let up on the gas to ease into a parking spot, and having to pull the e-brake at precisely the right moment.

Meanwhile the capsule, with its higher apogee and greater drag, has been falling down this whole time, waiting for the right time to deploy its parachutes. It didn’t happen until below the 7,000-foot mark, making me sweat a bit. It wouldn’t be a good look to have your crew capsule impact at 240 MPH.

The commentator describes the capsule touchdown a minute or two later as a “beautiful soft landing,” though honestly it looks like it would give anyone inside something of a jolt. Let’s hope the seats are comfortable in that thing.