Jeff Bezos is sick of being second fiddle. His reusable rocket company Blue Origin actually beat SpaceX to the punch landing a rocket back in late 2015, but SpaceX grabbed all the glory a week later and has not looked back since. Now a mere days after Elon Musk announced SpaceX would send two tourists on an orbit around the Moon, Bezos is taking his cue from Amazon and announcing Blue Origin payload deliveries to the lunar surface will begin by 2020.
Blue Origin was already working on the idea before SpaceX’s announcement, though the latter might have influenced their decision to go public with the idea. Bezos has been circulating a seven-page proposal around the halls of NASA and the White House for a lunar lander project that would ferry 10,000-kg payloads of supplies to a central point near the Moon’s south pole by the Shackleton Crater. It assumes “future human settlement” and presumably would include the delivery of supplies to whatever moon base were to be built there.
Basically it’s Amazon Space, which if it hasn’t been trademarked yet better be soon (go to amazonspace.com and you will be redirected to Amazon).
“It is time for America to return to the Moon — this time to stay,” Bezos told the Washington Post, a paper he owns and got the privilege to report the story. “A permanently inhabited lunar settlement is a difficult and worthy objective. I sense a lot of people are excited about this.”
Bezos wouldn’t create an Amazon Space service if he didn’t think he would have customers. Those are becoming more abundant.
Several ventures are working on regular travel to and from Earth’s celestial neighbor. Moon Express plans to build a helium-3 mining business while the United Launch Alliance (backed by both Lockheed Martin and Boeing) are designing a transportation network. Bigelow Aerospace is also designing inflatable habitats that could be used there. Even more significant is China’s promise to land a probe on the moon by 2018 and the European Space Agency (ESA) plan to construct a “moon village.”
Investments are growing. The Space Angels Network and delivery service DHL are among several backers for former XPrize participant Astrobotic out of Pittsburgh. A July 2013 report by Chad Anderson optimistically forecast a $1.9 billion lunar delivery market by 2020. That figure now seems plausible.
His main competitor would presumably be SpaceX, though they have not been as specific about a lunar delivery service. Blue Origin’s move here would be a rapid escalation of the company’s current capabilities, but shows Bezos is both confident the industry will indeed grow and that he feels an urgency to get there. SpaceX may choose to explore the option of its own direct-to-Luna services in the wake of the proposal, which Musk likely got a peek at as a member of President Trump’s technology advisory team.
Moon Express and other competitors like SpaceIL will make an effort to land rovers on the lunar surface in early 2018 with launches planned for late 2017 as part of the Google Lunar XPrize contest. It’s feasible that members of the participating teams, even if unsuccessful this time around, will court investors for new space-bound and moon-faring startups by the end of the decade.
The current space startup scene is dominated by nanosatellites from companies like Finland’s Reaktor, Planet, Astroscale, SpacePharma, NSLComm (SkyFi), and a growing host of research institutions. As those sats become more powerful and rocketry more aggressive in trying to reach beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO), expect more proposals to send nanosats to places like the Moon as part of efforts to more systemically map the lunar surface for mining efforts, exploratory missions, and dry runs for future Martian missions.
Expect some of those nanosat companies to be among the first to offer a lunar-monitoring service with their own satellite constellations that would help prospectors and agencies like NASA survey terrain before landings.
The lunar segment of the space industry is set to grow, and Bezos plans to be part of that unfolding chapter of scientific and economic history.