The richest man in the world just made a lively presentation about his vision for sending humanity to live in space.
Jeff Bezos on Thursday unveiled a brand new rocket engine and a mockup of the lunar lander it wants to use to shuttle cargo or people to the moon. He also spoke about one day creating giant orbital structures that could host self-sustaining colonies, and his dream of people living and working among the stars.
If much of the speech from Bezos, the Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder, sounded like far-out science fiction, that's because it is. For the time being.
But he did offer insight into Blue Origin's lunar lander plans, which could carry supplies to the moon in a few years and eventually put people back on its surface for the first time in nearly half a century. Its first mission is slated for 2024.
"Big things start small," Bezos told a crowd of reporters and space industry folks at an event in Washington D.C. on Thursday. "It's time to go back to the moon, this time to stay."
In his mind, developing a new lunar lander — or Blue Moon, as the spacecraft is called — is the next piece of infrastructure needed to expand human presence in the cosmos. It could help open the door for "thousands of entrepreneurs" to create new space businesses.
Bezos' Blue Moon project is already years in the making. Thursday's event was a sign that he and his rocket company, Blue Origin, are dead serious about the moon. And they intend to get there soon.
The event also gave people a glimpse of a to-scale model of Blue Moon, and it was the first public hurrah in years for a space company that typically avoids the spotlight.
Blue Origin, NASA and space politics
Bezos has been funding Blue Origin out of his own pocket by selling about $1 billion worth of Amazon stock each year. And it could get new backing from NASA.
Blue Origin's announcement comes just weeks after Vice President Mike Pence said that the United States would put boots back on the moon within five years "by any means necessary." Pence's speech was met with suspicion about how such a mission could be funded or executed safely on such a short timeline. It's still not clear how those goals will be financed.
But Pence's declaration was music to the ears of private companies that are interested in deep-space travel and creating a vibrant space economy. There could be lucrative government contracts involved.
The world of spaceflight has increasingly shifted from the domain of governments to the private sector. The US military has been spending big bucks courting commercial space technologies. And NASA has turned to companies like SpaceX and Boeing to take over tasks at the International Space Station.
NASA said last month that it's looking to support "rapid" development of technology that can put humans back on the lunar surface. And it made sense that Blue Origin showed up near Capitol Hill to refloat its moon ambitions.
Why does Bezos care about space?
Bezos has been busy reinventing retail with Amazon and amassing the world's largest fortune. But he says space is his passion, and he founded Blue Origin two decades ago to start developing the technologies that could support the long-term dream of colonizing the cosmos.
Blue Origin started with a suborbital space tourism vehicle, New Shepard, which could start flying customers this year. And it could launch a far larger and game-changing vehicle called New Glenn for the first time in 2021.
Bezos' competitor is fellow tech celebrity Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002. Musk's firm is far more developed, has already been launching satellites to orbit for years, and has long discussed plans to put humans on Mars for the first time in history.
Billionaire antics aside — when it comes to the risk and expense of sending people to extraterrestrial lands, a key question is always, "Why?"
Planetary researchers have long known that our moon and nearby planets would offer rough lives for humans. The air isn't breathable, and it would take a long time to develop technologies that could replicate the easy living we have here. Musk and Bezos each have their own reasons for wanting to go anyway.
Bezos reiterated his on Thursday.
"Earth is the best planet," he said while briefly acknowledging more immediate issues like global warming, poverty and pollution.
But, Bezos said, if the Earth's population and energy consumption keeps expanding as it has, we will reach a point where every corner of the planet would need to be covered in solar panels to provide people with the quality of life the developed world has come to expect.
"We will run out of energy on Earth," he said. "This is just arithmetic, it's going to happen ... If we move out into the universe, for all practical purposes, we have unlimited resources."
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