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Blue Origin CEO Talks Space Ambitions

Blue Origin is making its presence felt across the satellite and space industry. The company has already become a significant force in the launch market, and has signed a slew of deals recently — like with Telesat, which is launching a constellation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. However, Blue Origin is more about launching satellites. At SATELLITE this year, Blue Origin created quite a stir with its announcement on the Blue Moon lunar lander, as Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos talked about a vision of life away from Earth and how companies like Blue Origin can make this a reality for future generations. After this announcement, Via Space caught up with Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith about Blue Origin’s “space” vision and what comes next after the Blue Moon announcement.

VIA SPACE: Firstly, Blue Origin created one of the highlights of SATELLITE week with the Blue Moon announcement. Given what the company is doing in launch, how important is the lunar exploration side of things for the company? What are the plans over the next 12 months — where do things go next?

Smith: At Blue Origin, we focus on two hard problems that keep us aligned to our vision of millions of people living and working in space: dramatically lowering launch costs and utilizing in-space resources. Our work on Blue Moon is aligned to that second hard problem and so, it is central to our company’s efforts. As for our progress, we recently had exciting news with the first firing of our lunar landing engine, the BE-7. It’s a big milestone for us. Over the next 12 months, we will continue to develop and mature that high-performing engine. We will also refine our mission sequences, our detailed lander designs, define our supply base and work with NASA to integrate our offering into their overall Artemis program.

VIA SPACE: How do you think we can benefit from having a regular supply of missions to the moon? How do you see this benefiting life on Earth? What is the importance of this for humanity in general?

Smith: We have been working on a cargo lander for a few years now. We believe that positioning supplies on the surface is vitally important if we are going back to the Moon to stay. With regular supplies and precision landing, we can begin to consolidate our capabilities on the lunar surface and perform a much wider range of activities. We see that many of the benefits we saw from the Apollo mission also apply to going back to Moon. We will develop new technologies that will likely come into new markets. We will gain a broader understanding of our place in the universe. And, most importantly, we will inspire a new generation to dream about reaching for the stars.

VIA SPACE: Jeff (Bezos) spoke of the long-term vision of establishing space-based communities away from Earth. How optimistic are you that this will be realized?

Smith: At Blue Origin, we know that Earth is the best planet — by far. We know that it is finite and we are now, as a civilization, having a significant impact on it. If we are to provide a future of abundance for our great-grandchildren, then we need to find new sources of energy and materials. We need to go to space to benefit, and most importantly, preserve Earth for all time. It’s imperative that we, in this generation, take the next steps to build the road to space. When we do so, future generations can and will preserve our namesake — our “Blue Origin.”

VIA SPACE: What do you see as the major technical challenges to make these Blue Moon missions a success?

Smith: We have the technical and organizational abilities to make Blue Moon a success. As with any difficult endeavor, we will have challenges and will need to work through them. However, as opposed to the Apollo missions, there are not a broad set of brand new technologies that have to be developed. We know that we can land on the Moon. It’s up to us to utilize advances in manufacturing, operations, computation, communication, and materials to return to the Moon and extend our abilities on the lunar surface such that we create a sustainable presence there. It should be noted that our biggest challenge is not technical or programmatic. We need an efficient and accelerated government acquisition process that will leverage public-private partnerships. If we do that, and we are working with NASA to do so, we can meet our objectives. Without it, we will struggle to get moving.

VIA SPACE: Will Blue Moon be a gamechanger for the satellite/space industry?

Smith: Blue Moon utilizes many of the technologies that we pioneered on New Shepard. We have learned a lot about precision landing, reliable landing gear, cryogenic tank design, safety systems, and autonomous operations. All of these technologies, and more, are being reapplied to Blue Moon and give us confidence that we can successfully put humans on the Moon.

VIA SPACE: How important is it for the U.S. (whether commercial or government) to have leadership here? Do you think we will see the first woman on the lunar surface by 2024?

Smith: We are excited about the Administration’s focus on space leadership. The National Space Council has taken a broad look at our space capabilities and has set about making positive changes in national security space systems, commercial space regulations and, of course, a heightened focus on returning to the Moon. It’s great to see that focus in an area that we find so vitally important to our country and to the world. NASA gets to make crew selections for these missions, but we have heard Vice President [Mike] Pence state how excited he is to think about putting the first woman on the Moon. We think that’s terrific and exciting. At Blue Origin, we know we need to go back to the Moon in some very different ways than we did in Apollo — and not just technologically. We all benefit when we have a team that is diverse and inclusive. We gain new perspectives and are more innovative when different experiences are in the room. It’s just a fundamentally better way of working together when no one is left out. It’s wonderful to say that we truly have an opportunity, in this generation, to go back to the Moon and have everyone represented in that effort.

VIA SPACE: When do you think Blue Moon might fly for the first time? What is a realistic timeframe for this?

Smith: We’re working with NASA on that timeline now. We can meet the stated objective of 2024 if we get through the acquisition process quickly and with a good teaming relationship with NASA.

VIA SPACE: Is Blue Moon likely to land on the Shackleton crater located on the Moon’s South Pole? Where will Blue Moon fly to on the moon for the first time?

Smith: We will work with NASA to determine the best landing sites. The Moon’s South Pole certainly is a novel and appealing destination. The scientific benefits of exploring that part of the Moon are intriguing and a landing there will allow us to take the first steps in understanding what it would take to operate on that portion of the Moon.

VIA SPACE: Finally, a crystal ball question. In 2030, how will the Moon look in terms of missions, and what we are doing as an industry and a community?

Smith: We set out plans that extend over many years, so we have some perspective on what we, at Blue Origin, will be doing. Our New Shepard vehicle will have made space tourism routine and operational reusability a reality for a launch vehicle. Our New Glenn will be providing dozens of reliable, highly available low-cost launches to a variety of orbits for national security, commercial and civil customers. And our Blue Moon system will have been to Moon and supported sustained presence there. That’s a challenging and wonderful future to work toward and one that we are committed to. VS