On May 9, 2019, Jeff Bezos, the founder of the American aerospace company, Blue Origin, discussed his vision to go to space to benefit Earth. In addition, he also announced the Blue Moon lunar lander, which is capable of taking people and payloads to the lunar surface. Here is the full replay of the event below. You’ll find more information about these announcements.
Then he talks about the urgent problems of Earth, like poverty, homelessness, pollution, overfishing in the oceans, etc. He adds that there are also long-range problems. But according to Bezos, we can – and should work on them both.
An example of a very fundamental long-range problem: we’ll run out of energy here on Earth.
Earth’s future energy shortage problem
Bezos says “you live a better life than your grandparents did, your grandparents lived better lives than their grandparents did.”
The main reason is, energy, we’ve been to harvest, and use to our benefit.
Bezos gives examples: “When you go to a hospital, you’re using a lot of energy – all the medical equipment that was manufactured for you, transportation, the kinds of entertainment that we enjoy, the medications that we use… all these things demand a tremendous amount of energy.”
But today, we produce energy using unsustainable methods.
What’s more, the energy usage of humanity doubles every 25 years.
Using solar energy won’t solve the problem. Today, we can produce all the energy used by humans by covering Nevada with solar panels.
But, in a couple of hundred years, we’ll have to cover the entire surface of the Earth with solar panels! That’s despite we are using energy increasingly efficiently every year.
Bezos asks: “What happens when unlimited demand meets finite resources?”
Rationing is one possible path. But that means, your grandchildren and their grandchildren would have worse lives than you. That’s unacceptable. That’s a bad path.
The right path: expanding into the Solar System – “going to space to benefit Earth”
That’s the path we would be on. Bezos says “If we move out into the Solar System for all practical purposes, we have unlimited resources”.
“So we have to choose: do we want stasis and rationing, or do we want dynamism and growth.”
But where should we expand?
American physicist and space activist Gerard K. O’Neill (February 6, 1927 – April 27, 1992, see notes 1) once asked a question that nobody asked before: “Is a planetary surface the best place for humans to expand into the solar system?”
He and his students have set to work on answering that question.
“They came to a very surprising and counter-intuitive answer: No.”
Other planetary surfaces are really small. The surface area of the Moon is 38 million km2 and Mars has about 145 million km2 of surface area, a little less than that of Earth’s (150 million km2).
What’s more, these planetary bodies are (especially Mars) are far away. This is a very significant logistics problem.
Real-time communications would be another problem since we’re limited by the speed of light.
But, most fundamentally, these other planetary surfaces do not have, and cannot have Earth-like gravity.
So, instead, O’Neill and his students came up with an idea of “manufactured worlds”, to provide the inhabitants of a space colony with an Earth-like environment.
His students had designed giant pressurized structures, spun up to approximate Earth gravity by centrifugal force. With the population of the colony living on the inner surface of a sphere or cylinder, these structures resembled “inside-out planets”.
O’Neill found that pairing counter-rotating cylinders would eliminate the need to spin them using rockets. This configuration has since been known as the O’Neill cylinder.
These are very large structures – miles on end and they hold millions of people each.
Bezos talks about the benefits of these huge artificial worlds:
- Some of them would be more recreational – they don’t have to have the same gravity. You could have a recreational one that keeps zero-G, so you can go there to fly with your own wings.
- Some would be national parks.
- These would be really pleasant places to live, with ideal climates, no storms, no earthquakes, no earthly disasters.
- Some O’Neill colonies might choose to replicate historical Earth cities. Or there can be a whole new kind of architecture.
- And people who live there will be close to Earth – so they can return at any time. It will also be easy to go-between.
How O’Neill colonies can benefit Earth
Bezos says “if we build these O’Neill colonies, Earth will be a beautiful place to live”.
Because we can move all the heavy-industry which destroys Earth’s nature to space. In fact, most people could live in the O’Neill colonies, so Earth can be a residential place or even a huge national park.
“We can have both. We can preserve this unique gem of a planet which is completely irreplaceable, and we can have dynamism and growth – so our grandchildren and their grandchildren can continue to live better lives than us.”
Bezos then talks about how it would take a long time to build a space generation – because the people of the future will have to build a whole industry.
Today, the space industry is too expensive, because there’s no infrastructure. Bezos gives some examples of Amazon. There was already a huge transporting infrastructure when he founded the company in 1994 – they didn’t build it from scratch – it would take billions of dollars. Similarly, there were already payment systems, computers, etc. They didn’t create all these industries, they already existed.
But, this isn’t the case for the space industry. Bezos says, “my generation’s job (our generation’s job) is to build the infrastructure, so the children of the future will be able to build the space colonies.”
“We’re gonna build a road to space. And then amazing things will happen.”
“How are we gonna build O’Neill colonies? Nobody knows. It’s future generations’ job to figure out to details. But what we can know is that there are certain gates we have to go through. Certain precursors, certain prerequisites. If we don’t do these, we’ll never get there.”
The two main prerequisites are, according to Bezos:
- We must have a radical reduction in launch cost.
- We have to use “in space” resources. Because Earth has a very powerful gravitational field. Lifting all the necessary resources off of Earth just isn’t going to work.
Founded in 2000 by the American technology entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is an American privately-funded aerospace manufacturer and sub-orbital spaceflight services company headquartered in Kent, Washington.
Jeff Bezos is also the founder, chairman, CEO, and president of Amazon, the American multinational technology company based in Seattle, Washington.
Blue Origin’s vision is a future where millions of people are living and working in space: “In order to preserve Earth, our home, for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, we must go to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy. If we can lower the cost of access to space with reusable launch vehicles, we can all enable this dynamic future for humanity”.
Blue Origin has already made amazing progress on reusable launch vehicles.
So far, the company produced a reusable, vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing suborbital crewed rocket named New Shephard. Named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space, the vehicle’s development started in 2006, while full-scale engine development started in the early 2010s and was complete by 2015.
When a spacecraft reaches space but does not complete one orbital revolution, that’s called a “suborbital spaceflight”.
Uncrewed flight testing of the complete New Shepard vehicle (propulsion module and space capsule) began in 2015.
The first crewed test flight is planned to occur in 2019. If the crewed tests are successful, Blue Origin has announced that tickets would begin to be sold for commercial flights.
The achievements of the New Shepard so far include:
- 10 consecutive landings
- Two boosters have flown five times, with almost no refurbishment between flights
- 3 successful escape tests
Bezos says that they made some very curious technology decisions while designing the New Shepard.
For example, using liquid hydrogen as fuel. It is the most efficient rocket fuel, but it’s most difficult to work with. It’s also not necessary for suborbital flights. But, they decided to use it because they knew they are going to need it for the next stage and they wanted to get practice with this hardest to use but highest performing rocket fuel.
Same thing with vertical landing: in fact, vertical lending gets easier the bigger the vehicle. If you can land a small vehicle vertical, and learn how to do it efficiently, you can then scale it up easier.
The Blue Origin team also wanted to build a human-rated system right from the beginning. So they would be forced to think clearly about safety, reliability, escape systems, etc.
They would need to have practice on all these things in order to build their next-generation space vehicle (see Blue Moon lunar lander below).
Blue Origin’s heavy-lift orbital launch vehicle New Glenn is named after John Herschel Glenn Jr. (July 18, 1921 – December 8, 2016), the first American to orbit the Earth, circling it three times in 1962.
Its design began in 2012. The vehicle itself, and the high-level specifications were initially publicly unveiled in September 2016. New Glenn is described as a two-stage rocket with a diameter of 7 meters (23 ft). Its first stage will be powered by seven BE-4 engines that are also being designed and manufactured by Blue Origin.
Like the New Shepard, the New Glenn’s first stage is designed to be reusable. Blue Origin aims to launch New Glenn in 2021.
New Glenn has a payload capacity of 45,000 kg (99,000 lb) to LEO (Low Earth Orbit, see notes 2) and 13,000 kg (29,000 lb) to GTO (Geostationary Transfer Orbit, see notes 3). According to Bezos, it is big enough that New Shepard can fit in the payload bay of New Glenn.
- New Glenn’s first stage is designed to be reused 25 times.
- It has a massive 7-meter payload fairing.
- The first stage will be powered by seven BE-4 methane/oxygen engines -designed and manufactured by Blue Origin- producing 17,000 kN (3,800,000 lbf) of liftoff thrust.
- The second stage will be powered by two BE-3U engines, also designed and manufactured by Blue Origin. BE-3Us is an expander cycle variant of the BE-3 engine is explicitly designed for use in upper stages.
- It is designed for human rating right from the very beginning.
In-space resources: Moon
Bezos says “we have a gift: that nearby body called Moon”.
Now we know that there’s water ice on the Moon and it’s an incredibly valuable resource.
The moon is just three days away. It’s really easy to get there compared to Mars, which has a 22-month launch window. And even a one-way trip to Mars takes months.
The Moon has a low gravity – 1.62 m/s², about 17% of what it is on the Earth. Getting into orbit requires 24x less energy than Earth.
Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander
Blue Origin announced Blue Moon, its large lunar lander capable of delivering multiple metric tons of payload to the lunar surface based on configuration and mission. The cargo variant revealed today can carry 3.6 metric tons to the surface. Blue Origin also designed a variant of the lander that can stretch to be capable of carrying a 6.5-metric-ton, human-rated ascent stage. Blue also announced it can meet the current Administration’s goal of putting Americans on the Moon by 2024 with the Blue Moon lunar lander.
The Blue Moon lunar lander will be powered by the BE-7 engine, a new addition to Blue Origin’s family of engines. The BE-7’s 40 kN (10,000 lbf) thrust is designed for large lunar payload transport. The engine’s propellants are a highly efficient combination of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. The BE-7 will have its first hotfire this summer. The engine will be available for sale to other companies for use in in-space and lander applications.
Blue Origin began development work on the lander in 2016, publicly disclosed the project in 2017. At 34:10, Bezos unveils a mock-up of the Blue Moon lander in May 2019.
The deck of the lander is designed to be a very simple interface, so a great variety of payloads can be placed onto the top deck.
Using the onboard star-tracker, the spacecraft can autonomously navigate in space.
It has also an optical communication system (a laser that transmits data) which enables gigabit bandwidth back to Earth. It has also X-band for 10 megabit radio.
A BE-3U LOX/Hydrogen rocket engine will be used to place the lander on a trans-lunar injection trajectory and to begin to decelerate the vehicle for its lunar surface landing. The lander will “land tail-down” using 49 kilonewtons (11,000 lbf) liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen thrusters that were under development before April 2017.
The lander will be powered by the BE-7 hydrolox dual-expander engine.
Liquid hydrogen is an excellent choice of fuel for the moon. As mentioned above, liquid hydrogen is the highest performing rocket fuel, and Blue Origin is planning to harvest hydrogen by electrolysis of water on the Moon.
Blue Origin is also planning to power the vehicle using hydrogen fuel cells, instead of solar arrays. Because they want to be able to survive the lunar nights – what you can’t do with solar cells. A lunar night is two weeks long, and it gets really cold.
Furthermore, hydrogen fuel cells can provide a lot of power (2.5 kW), which would require very large solar arrays.
“This is an incredible vehicle, and it’s going to the Moon.”
Club For the Future
A non-profit founded by Blue Origin dedicated to inspiring and engaging the next generation of dreamers and space entrepreneurs as we journey to preserve Earth and unlock the potential of living and working in space. The Club will bring together K-12 students, educators, and leaders for campaigns and initiatives utilizing Blue Origin’s unique access to space. The Club’s first activity will be to send a postcard to space and back on a future New Shepard mission – the first-ever space mail. Learn more on the website clubforfuture.org.
1. Gerard K. O’Neill
Gerard Kitchen O’Neill (February 6, 1927 – April 27, 1992) was an American physicist and space activist. As a faculty member of Princeton University, he invented a device called the particle storage ring for high-energy physics experiments. Later, he invented a magnetic launcher called the mass driver.
In the 1970s, he developed a plan to build human settlements in outer space, including a space habitat design known as the O’Neill cylinder. He founded the Space Studies Institute, an organization devoted to funding research into space manufacturing and colonization.
O’Neill began researching high-energy particle physics at Princeton in 1954 after he received his doctorate from Cornell University. Two years later, he published his theory for a particle storage ring. This invention allowed particle accelerators at much higher energies than had previously been possible. In 1965 at Stanford University, he performed the first colliding beam physics experiment.
While teaching physics at Princeton, O’Neill became interested in the possibility that humans could survive and live in outer space. He researched and proposed a futuristic idea for human settlement in space, the O’Neill cylinder, in “The Colonization of Space”, his first paper on the subject.
He held a conference on space manufacturing at Princeton in 1975. Many who became post-Apollo-era space activists attended. O’Neill built his first mass driver prototype with professor Henry Kolm in 1976. He considered mass drivers critical for extracting the mineral resources of the Moon and asteroids. His award-winning book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space inspired a generation of space exploration advocates. He died of leukemia in 1992.
2. Low Earth Orbit (LEO)
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is an orbit around Earth with an altitude between 160 kilometers (99 mi) (orbital period of about 88 minutes), and 2,000 kilometers (1,200 mi) (orbital period of about 127 minutes). For example, the International Space Station (ISS) is in Low Earth Orbit. It orbits the Earth at around 400 km (250 miles).
Related: What is an orbit?
3. Geostationary transfer orbit
A geosynchronous transfer orbit or geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) is a Hohmann transfer orbit (an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different radii in the same plane) used to reach geosynchronous or geostationary orbit using high-thrust chemical engines.
A geostationary orbit, geostationary Earth orbit, or geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) is a circular orbit 35,786 kilometers (22,236 mi) above the Earth’s equator and following the direction of the Earth’s rotation. An object in such an orbit has an orbital period equal to the Earth’s rotational period (one sidereal day) and thus appears motionless, at a fixed position in the sky, to ground observers.