Jeff Bezos Unveils Blue Origin’s Vision for Space, and a Moon Lander

By Kenneth Chang

In a choreographed presentation, the Amazon founder said he wants to build the infrastructure for humans to live in space.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, during the announcement of the space company’s vision for operations on the moon, in Washington on Thursday.CreditCreditTom Brenner for The New York Times
Kenneth Chang

WASHINGTON — In a carefully choreographed event akin to an announcement of a new iPhone, Jeffrey P. Bezos unveiled a moon lander.

Mr. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, also owns Blue Origin, a rocket company. In a convention center ballroom here, Mr. Bezos described on Thursday a dreamy, ambitious vision of the future: a trillion people in space, living not on moons or planets, but bucolic space colonies in a style originally envisioned by a Princeton physicist, Gerard K. O’Neill.

“This would be an incredible civilization,” Mr. Bezos said.

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The space colonies would be built by future generations. Mr. Bezos said what he and others today can do is start building the infrastructure. In the short-term, that includes a lunar lander, Blue Moon, a sleek vehicle that became visible as a curtain in front was yanked away.

“We are going to build a road to space,” Mr. Bezos said. “And then amazing things will happen.”

During his speech, Mr. Bezos gushed about the specifications of the lander, the efficiency of the engines and how much it could carry, much as an Apple or Samsung might boast about the new functions of their latest smartphones.

He also made a direct pitch to NASA and the White House — that this would help meet President Trump’s goal, stated by Vice President Pence, to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024. He suggested that only Blue Origin would be able to have a lander ready to fly that quickly. “We can help meet that timeline,” Mr. Bezos said, “but only because we started three years ago.”

He spent the first half of the presentation selling the idea of space and countering criticisms that space exploration is a frivolous pursuit that diverts people’s attention from pressing problems on Earth.

But he argued that humanity must eventually push into space.

Rising energy consumption is crucial to raising the standard of living for more people, but “We will run out of energy,” Mr. Bezos said. “This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen.”

At that point, to remain on Earth would require rationing and declining opportunities. But the rest of the solar system offers virtually limitless resources. “Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?” he asked rhetorically. “This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy.”

Mr. Bezos founded his rocket company in 2000, which means that it has been around longer than the other, better-known billionaire rocket company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Mr. Musk started SpaceX in 2002.

But for the first decade and a half of its existence, Blue Origin operated quietly. When one of its rockets crashed during a test flight in 2011, a week passed before Mr. Bezos acknowledged the failure.

In 2016, Mr. Bezos finally invited journalists for a visit to Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., south of Seattle, and described his vision of millions of people living and working in space.

On Thursday, Mr. Bezos seemed to take indirect aim at Mr. Musk’s vision of establishing a colony on Mars. The Amazon founder said giant space colonies — rotating to provide artificial gravity — would be a much more practical solution to settling humans across the solar system. Mars, the moon and other destinations would not provide all that much space to live, and they are distant and largely inhospitable.

The colonies Dr. O’Neill envisioned would be much more inviting. “This is Maui on its best day all year around,” he said. And people could still easily go back to Earth.

For now, Blue Origin is still in the early stages, far behind the accomplishments of SpaceX. Two years ago, Mr. Bezos said he would be selling $1 billion a year in Amazon stock to finance Blue Origin. Mr. Bezos will retain control of Blue Origin after his divorce this year.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket during a test launch near Van Horn, Tex., on May 2. The flight was live streamed by Blue Origin.CreditReuters

The company is conducting test flights of its suborbital New Shepard rocket. That spacecraft is designed to take space tourists on short hops into space, where passengers will experience just a few minutes of weightlessness before New Shepard’s passenger capsule returns to Earth’s surface.

The company conducted its latest test — the 11th — this month. Mr. Bezos said that the first flights carrying people will occur this year.

Outside NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Blue Origin has built a new factory for manufacturing a larger rocket, New Glenn. Mr. Bezos described it on Thursday in detail, and its first flight is to occur in 2021. He said it has been designed from the beginning to be capable of eventually taking people to orbit.

In the last couple of years, the Trump administration has revived plans to send astronauts back to the moon, and NASA last year announced a road map that included turning to commercial companies for sending experiments and cargo to the lunar surface.

The Blue Moon lander is larger and more capable than what other companies have been developing. The cargo version would be able to land 8,000 pounds on the surface. On the stage next to the lander was a mock-up of a rover that looked like a cousin of the ones that NASA has sent to Mars.

A stretched version of Blue Moon, with larger propellant tanks, could carry larger payloads of more than 14,000 pounds — including a module that carries astronauts and provides the propulsion for getting off the moon again.

A scientific advisory board includes Harrison Schmitt, the NASA geologist who walked on the moon during Apollo 17, and Steven W. Squyres, a Cornell planetary scientist who was the principal investigator for NASA’s Opportunity and Spirit rovers on Mars.

“I think it’s great,” Dr. Squyres said afterward about the Blue Moon spacecraft. The scientists have been advising Blue Origin about the types of science that could be done on the surface of moon.

NASA is aiming to explore craters near the moon’s South Pole where water ice is believed to exist. The water molecules can be broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen, which could be used for rocket fuel. (The choice of hydrogen and oxygen as Blue Moon’s propellants was to take advantage of this eventually.) The resources would also be handy for astronauts — water for drinking, oxygen for

After laying out his vision, Mr. Bezos announced plans to encourage children to become more interested in space. He showed a photograph from the early days of Amazon.

“Big things start small,” he said. Then, he walked off the stage.

Kenneth Chang has been at The Times since 2000, writing about physics, geology, chemistry, and the planets. Before becoming a science writer, he was a graduate student whose research involved the control of chaos. @kchangnyt

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: Bezos Says Moon Lander Will Pave ‘Road to Space’. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe