Sparky to Ride Amazon-Powered Rocket to the Moon — or Is It All Just Lunacy?

Blue Moon lunar lander
Blue Moon lunar lander Blue Origin
The goal is ambitious and awe-inspiring: Payloads created by Arizona State University students and researchers will land on the moon, possibly within the next five years.

At an invite-only announcement at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on May 9, Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos unveiled Blue Moon, a high-tech lunar lander he said will be produced by his space company, Blue Origin. Bezos described some features of the lander and said he'd help put humans on the moon again by 2024.

Moonstruck space fans and journalists thrilled at the news, as did supporters of Arizona State University, which was on a short list of "customers" for the future moon lander. The university announced the same day that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Blue Origin "to send payloads to the lunar surface."

"This is all very preliminary. There is no budget yet." Skip Derra, ASU spokesperson

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Such payloads might be composed of small scientific instruments dropped into the dust, or wheeled lunar rovers that drive off into the hills with ASU students helping to guide it back on earth. The robotic missions could be a predecessor to human exploration missions, or assist them. According to Bezos, moonbases on the water-holed lunar south pole would help prepare for a future that involves millions of humans someday living on the moon and in space stations.

Such a Robert McCall-esque vision won't happen anytime soon, clearly. In the short term, questions like how much the moon plan would cost ASU and where the money would come from remain unanswered.

ASU said on May 9 that it "will develop one or more payload experiments" for Blue Moon. But ASU waffled on that commitment in response to questions about how much money ASU has set aside for the project.

"This is all very preliminary. There is no budget yet," spokesperson Skip Derra said on behalf of ASU. "We are excited to continue conversations with Blue Origin about potential projects. If we do decide to commit to developing projects with Blue Origin, the expectation is that we would have to apply for grants and possibly fund-raise from foundations or other philanthropy, as we would with any other research project."

Phoenix New Times requested to view the MOU on May 13; ASU declined to release it last week, citing an exception to state public records law that allows universities to withhold certain confidential materials when dealing with third parties.

"We are eager to disclose the MOU," Derra said. "We’re just confirming with Blue Origin that there is no Blue Origin confidential information in the MOU that we would have to redact, per ARS 15-1640."

"Certainly the goal is to develop a payload to fly on a Blue Origin rocket," he added. "But at this time we’re still talking about the technical details and aren’t sure yet what we’ll be doing."

True, the fact that anyone's even talking about this is enough to stir the blood of any wannabe space-faring earthling. A revolution, if not several, in the technologies of computers, miniaturization, and rocket science have occurred since the Apollo missions. And after all, the moon is an average of only 238,855 miles away — a Prius could drive there, with a road and a few fill-up stations. (A Prius would take longer than a rocket, though — about one year of driving 650 miles every day.)

The new private spaceship industry, with its precise vertical landings of rockets, would probably seem familiar to Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury. Besides launching swarms of new satellites, the new space era predicts space mining, tourism, the ultimate high-rise habitation, endless scientific exploration, and the colonization of new worlds. Blue Origin, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and other companies, along with NASA and its behemoth Space Launch System rocket, seem ready to win a new space race.

Bezos' company has shown promise with several successful launches and powered returns of reusable rocket bodies. It's also partnered already with ASU for one of those flights: On May 2, a week before Bezos' moon-shot announcement, a payload created by ASU students — along with other payloads — lifted off on one of Blue Origin's New Shepard rockets to the boundary of space. ASU's softball-sized payload included 24 honeybees the students called "flapstronauts," and instrumentation designed to monitor the bees in microgravity.

That project included more than 30 ASU students who competed for a slot in the project, Derra said, and three projects were ultimately picked. Two of the three projects were funded by Technology Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) through the Interplanetary Initiative, "a university-wide effort to build the future for humans in space," he said.

The project used $10,600 in funding from TRIF, a sales-tax-generated fund created by voters with Proposition 301 in 2000 that raises tens of millions each year. It also used a "generous donation from private donors Peter and Cathy Swan," according to a recent ASU news article. Peter Swan is an "Interplanetary Initiative team member and space industry expert."

A program that included moon landings would be more expensive by many magnitudes of order. But moon landings are not only what Bezos and ASU want — they're what President Trump wants. Only question is, will Trump really make them happen, or is this more bluster?

"At the direction of the President of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years," Vice President Mike Pence said during a National Space Council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, on March 26. "And let me be clear: The first woman and the next man on the Moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets, from American soil ... The President has directed NASA and Administrator Jim Bridenstine to accomplish this goal by any means necessary."

"If commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the Moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be," Pence added.

However, critics worry the 2024 date is too soon, and that a $1.6 billion bump in NASA's budget for next year for the project is too little.

Critics have pointed out that NASA's budget is a fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget right now, but was about 5 percent of the budget during the Apollo era, during which 12 people walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972. Technology is much further along now, but the gadgetry still isn't cheap.

"In the coming years, we will need additional funds," Bridenstine admitted to reporters last week. "But this is a good amount that gets us out of the gate in a very strong fashion and sets us up for the future."

The Verge asked Bridenstine specifically about moon goals by Lockheed and Blue Origin.

"We want to have two very dissimilar landing capabilities, so that if one of them has a setback, the other one can go forward," the NASA director said. "Each one of these represents an opportunity for NASA to get unique perspectives from some very capable service providers, and we look forward to assessing and analyzing what they’re planning to do, and how much they believe it’s going to cost, and how much they’re willing to invest in the program."

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Jeff Bezos
Flickr / Public Domain
New Shepard, cool as it is, can't get to the moon. To conduct moon landings, Blue Origin needs a bigger boat — and that's coming in the form of New Glenn, a rocket that makes New Shepard look like a toy. Testing for the giant rocket begins in 2021, according to Blue Origin. The booster could supposedly land Blue Moon with up to 6.5 tons of payloads on the lunar surface, including up to four small rovers.

Bezos' staged, mock-up lander at the May 9 event included a bulbous tank of liquid hydrogen fuel for landing rockets and filling hydrogen fuel cells, but no inherent return capability. A launch vehicle for humans to get back to awaiting moon orbiters apparently could be added to the lander. Blue Origin has been working on this project in secret for three years, Bezos told the crowd of scientists, Blue Origin employees, reporters, and other guests at the event.

"I love Vice President Pence’s 2024 lunar landing goal," Bezos said. "We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started three years ago."

Bezos plans on other sources of revenue besides government help: He said Blue Origin has been working with "customers" interested in sending payloads to the lunar surface on Blue Moon, including Airbus, Arizona State University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and various aerospace companies.

"Proud to be on this list!" tweeted Linda Elkins-Tanton, director of ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration and co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative, who was at Bezos' event.

Indeed, ASU's space program already has a lot to be proud of, and ushering in a new era of lunar adventure would be little short of wondrous. And it may happen, at the current pace of technology, but perhaps not as quickly or inexpensively as people want.

Jim Bell, a noted professor at ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration and president of the nonprofit Planetary Society, teaches a class on the commercial applications in space and has brought in Blue Origin representatives to meet students.

"The kids are really excited about working for companies like that," he said.

For now, the focus will be on the technical capabilities of the moon lander, which will give ASU the information needed to plan payloads that "could be a range, from very small instruments to large rovers," Bell said.

The next step would be to find funding, he said.

Jim Bell
"That funding is going to have to come from NASA. It's not going to be ASU funding. It will be a few to tens to hundreds of millions of dollars," Bell said.

Because Blue Origin is partners with NASA, money would come from NASA, he added — ASU would be able to write proposals and grants that NASA would approve.

ASU works with other companies, too. These types of relationships give the university a "head start" for its programs, ultimately for the benefit of students and education, Bell said.

The MOU, which Bell called "a partnership for doing future projects," has not identified any specific projects but will bring ASU further inside a rocket company and enable it to prepare for possible landings, which first would involve figuring out the basic parameters of what's going to be possible.

The new campus space initiative is designed for such partnerships, Bell said. ASU has a "bottom line" of knowledge and enhanced learning for students, while the companies "are in it to make money."

Yet Bell noted, twice, that the timeline of five years is "aggressive." If Bezos is planning on putting on humans on the moon within five years, it stands to reason that before that, his company would land robotic test missions like one that ASU could theoretically be part of. Yet many steps would have to be overcome before that would happen, including the test launches of New Glenn and the fact that NASA and potentially private donors would have to step forward and help ASU reach the moon.

Even if getting to the moon takes longer than five years, it's the shooting for the moon part that will be fun and educational for ASU students. And who knows what would happen if Bezos, Trump, and NASA tossed a few more billion dollars into the effort? Maybe an ASU banner with mascot Sparky (and ASU President Michael Crow?) will be the next flag planted on the moon.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.