You may not have given a lot of thought to your plans for 2024, but more and more people in the space business have. For reasons not entirely clear, 2024 has become the big year for big promises.
The trend started in 2017 with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who stunned an international astronomy conference in Adelaide, Australia with his announcement that a new mega-rocket he was building could have human beings on Mars within seven years. Skeptics questioning how he arrived at that date speculated that it might have been a simple matter of subtraction. NASA had recently revealed that it was looking at 2034 for its own first Mars landing, so Musk, being Musk, just subtracted a decade and made his announcement. Either way, as with many of his other big predictions, he soon stopped talking about it.
Earlier this spring, NASA began flirting with 2024 too, when Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Vice President Mike Pence called for a return to the moon within five years. “We are committed to making this happen,” Bridenstine said in a NASA statement. “We have the people to achieve it. Now, we just need bipartisan support and the resources to get this done.”
That last sentence, of course, is the rub. At this point, bipartisan support is the political system’s version of a rare-Earth metal and when Bridenstine says “resources” he means money, something NASA hasn’t gotten in any real abundance in decades.
Now, completing the 2024 trifecta, Jeff Bezos — who more or less owns the world in his day job and in his off-hours is also chief and founder of the Blue Origin rocket company — has announced that he too will have people on the moon by 2024. In a nearly hour-long unveiling in Washington, D.C. on May 9, Bezos revealed not only his plans, but the Blue Moon spacecraft with which he plans to stick to his promised landing.
“This vehicle is going to the moon,” Bezos declared, showing off a giant, spidery ship reminiscent of the Apollo era’s lunar module, only sleeker and cooler and way, way bluer. “I love Vice President Pence’s 2024 lunar landing goal. We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago.”
So, where to begin?
For one thing, there’s the “this vehicle is going to the moon” part. It’s not. It can’t. That’s because it’s not a vehicle, but a mockup. It may go back to the prop shop where it was built, but that’s all. Bezos’ phrasing is no small thing, because the company’s own press material keeps echoing it, speaking of the spacecraft in the present, existing tense:
“Blue Moon is a flexible lunar lander delivering a wide variety of small, medium and large payloads to the lunar surface.” No, but it might be one day.
“The Blue Moon lander provides kilowatts of power to payloads using its fuel cells.” Not yet it doesn’t.
Much of the media echoed the be-here-now phrasing, which compounded the problem. NASA, for all of the dilatory drift of its post-Apollo era, is at least honest about the prospective nature of so many of its projects. Indeed, one good way to handicap the likelihood of any of the space agency’s ongoing projects actually reaching completion is to apply the Count the Conditionals rule: The more times a NASA press release describes what a planned spacecraft could or would do, the less likely it is that it will actually do anything at all.
Then there’s the business of Bezos’ supposed three-year head start on NASA: It’s a very good point, but only as long as you’re willing to overlook the 60-year head start NASA has on him. The space agency has been building rockets and spacecraft since the Eisenhower administration and most of what’s holding its lunar and Mars programs back is not a lack of know-how, but a lack of funding. There’s a lot to be said for the confidence and even arrogance that made Amazon the behemoth it is, but building rockets is a whole lot harder than selling merch. When you’ve never launched a human being on so much as a suborbital flight, implying that you’ve got edge on an agency that sent 24 people to the moon is not a good look.
Finally, there’s the matter of Bezos’ plans for colonizing and commercializing space, which took up a fair portion of his presentation. Much has been made — for good reason — of the fact that there is abundant water ice at the south lunar pole. Those deposits could be harvested for drinking water and to grow crops in envisioned lunar greenhouses. It could also be used as rocket fuel, once you break it down into its constituent oxygen and hydrogen. Bezos smartly plans the Blue Moon engines to run on a hydrogen-oxygen mix to take advantage of that fact. But he also envisions going further, using the moon for other manufacturing.
“[It] takes 24 times less energy to get [resources] off the surface compared to the Earth,” he said, and “that is a huge lever.”
But you’re getting them off the surface presumably just to take them back to Earth—where you could have done your manufacturing in the first place. Even if Bezos is not actually talking about manufacturing on the lunar surface, but merely extracting resources, there is not much in the way of raw materials that the moon has that Earth doesn’t. The exception is helium-3, an isotope of helium that is ever and always spoken of excitedly as an ideal fuel for a fusion reactor which could produce energy cleanly and boundlessly. That’s true — but first it would be nice if we could invent a fusion reactor, which we’ve been trying to do for decades and haven’t been able to achieve.
It’s a good thing that Bezos is putting his vision and his money behind getting people into space. The same is true of Musk, and the same is true of any other entrepreneurs who want to be part of a space game that once was open only to governments. But as those governments could tell you, it’s easy to excite people with the cool stuff you’re going to do, but it’s easier still to lose them entirely if you don’t deliver. Pro tip for the newbies: Build your spaceships first, then show them off.