The goal is ambitious and impressive: the payloads created by students and researchers at Arizona State University will land on the Moon, possibly within the next five years.
In an invitation-only ad at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, on May 9, Amazon's founder, Jeff Bezos, introduced Blue Moon, a high-tech lunar lander that he said will be produced by his Space company, Blue Origin. Bezos described some characteristics of the lander and said it would help put humans on the moon again by 2024.
Lunar space fans and journalists were thrilled with the news, as were the supporters of Arizona State University, who was on a short list of "clients" for the future moon launcher. The university announced on the same day that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Blue Origin "to send payloads to the lunar surface."
"All this is very preliminary, there is still no budget." Skip Derra, spokesperson for ASU
This payload could be made up of small scientific instruments that fall into the dust or lunar vehicles with wheels that lead to the hills with ASU students that help guide them back to Earth. Robotic missions could be an ancestor of human exploration missions or help them. According to Bezos, the lunar bases in the south lunar south pole of the water would help prepare for a future that involves millions of humans who will one day live on the Moon and on space stations.
ASU said on May 9 that it will "develop one or more payload experiments" for Blue Moon. However, ASU made that commitment in response to questions about how much money ASU has allocated for the project.
"All this is very preliminary, there is still no budget," said spokesman Skip Derra on behalf of ASU. "We are excited to continue discussions with Blue Origin about possible projects, if we decide to commit to developing projects with Blue Origin, the expectation is that we will have to apply for grants and possibly raise funds from foundations or another philanthropic organization, as we would with any other project. of investigation ".
Phoenix New Times asked to see the memorandum of understanding on May 13; ASU refused to publish it last week, citing an exception to the state public records law that allows universities to retain certain confidential materials when dealing with third parties.
"We are anxious to disclose the MOU," said Derra. "We are only confirming with Blue Origin that there is no confidential Blue Origin information in the MOU that we would have to write, according to ARS 15-1640."
"Certainly, the objective is to develop a payload to fly in a Blue Origin rocket," he added. "But at the moment we're still talking about the technical details and we're still not sure what we're going to do."
It is true that the fact that someone is talking about this is enough to stir the blood of any would-be spaceman. Since the Apollo missions, there has been a revolution, if not several, in computer technologies, miniaturization and space science. And after all, the Moon is an average of only 238,855 miles away: a Prius could drive there, with a highway and some charging stations. (However, a Prius would take more time than a rocket, about a year driving 650 miles every day).
The new industry of private spacecraft, with its precise vertical rockets, would probably seem familiar to Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury. In addition to launching swarms of new satellites, the new space age predicts space mining, tourism, the latest high-rise housing, endless scientific exploration and the colonization of new worlds. Blue Origin, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and other companies, along with NASA and its giant rocket Space Launch System, seem ready to win a new space race.
Bezos' company has shown promise with several successful launches and boosted returns of reusable rockets. It is also associated with ASU for one of those flights: on May 2, a week before Bezos's announcement on the moon, a payload created by ASU students, along with another payload, took off on one of the New Shepard rockets from Blue Origins to the Space Boundary. The ASU softball size payload included 24 bees that the students called "flapstronauts" and instrumentation designed to monitor bees in microgravity.
That project included more than 30 ASU students who competed for a position on the project, said Derra, and three projects were finally selected. Two of the three projects were funded by the Technology Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) through the Interplanetary Initiative, "a university-wide effort to build the future for humans in space," he said.
The project used $ 10,600 in TRIF funds, a fund generated by the sales tax created by voters with Proposition 301 in 2000 that increases tens of millions each year. He also used a "generous donation from private donors Peter and Cathy Swan," according to a recent ASU news article. Peter Swan is a "member of the Interplanetary Initiative team and an expert in the space industry".
A program that included landings on the moon would be more expensive for many magnitudes of order. But the landings on the moon are not just what Bezos and ASU want, they are what President Trump wants. The only question is, will Trump really make them happen, or is this more abusive?
"Under the direction of the president of the United States, the stated policy of this government and the United States of America is to return American astronauts to the Moon in the next five years," said Vice President Mike Pence during a National Council of Space. meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, on March 26. "And let me be clear: the first woman and the next man on the Moon will be American astronauts, launched by American rockets, from American soil … The President has led NASA and Administrator Jim Bridenstine to achieve this goal by any means necessary "
"If commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts on the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets will be," Pence added.
However, critics fear that the 2024 date is too early, and that an increase of $ 1.6 billion in NASA's budget for next year for the project is too small.
Critics have pointed out that NASA's budget is a fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget at this time, but it was about 5 percent of the budget during the Apollo era, during which 12 people walked on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. Technology is much further along now, but gadgets are not cheap yet.
"In the next few years, we will need additional funds," Bridenstine admitted to reporters last week. "But this is a good amount that pulls us out of the door in a very strong way and prepares us for the future."
The Verge asked Bridenstine specifically about the lunar objectives of Lockheed and Blue Origin.
"We want to have two very different landing capabilities, so if one of them has a setback, the other can advance," said the director of NASA. "Each of these represents an opportunity for NASA to obtain unique perspectives from some very capable service providers, and we hope to evaluate and analyze what they plan to do, and how much they think it will cost, and how much they are willing to invest in the program. "
New Shepard, since it's fine, can not reach the moon. To carry out lunar landings, Blue Origin needs a larger boat, which comes in the form of New Glenn, a rocket that makes New Shepard look like a toy. The tests for the giant rocket start in 2021, according to Blue Origin. The impeller could supposedly land Blue Moon with up to 6.5 tons of payloads on the lunar surface, including up to four small rovers.
Bezos' simulated landing module in the May 9 event included a bulbous liquid hydrogen fuel tank for landing rockets and filling of hydrogen fuel cells, but not an inherent return capability. A launch vehicle for humans to return to await the lunar orbiter apparently could be added to the lander. Blue Origin has been working on this project in secret for three years, Bezos told the crowd of scientists, Blue Origin employees, reporters and other guests at the event.
"I love the lunar landing goal of Vice President Pence in 2024," Bezos said. "We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started three years ago."
Bezos plans other sources of revenue in addition to government assistance: he said that Blue Origin has been working with "clients" interested in sending payloads to the lunar surface at Blue Moon, including Airbus, Arizona State University, the Institute of Massachusetts Technology and several aerospace companies.
"Proud to be on this list!" He tweeted Linda Elkins-Tanton, director of the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration and co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative, who was at the Bezos event.
In fact, the space program of the ASU already has much to be proud of, and the beginning of a new era of lunar adventures would be nothing less than wonderful. And it can happen, at the current pace of technology, but maybe not as fast or economical as people want.
Jim Bell, a prominent professor at ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration and president of the nonprofit Planetary Society, teaches about commercial applications in space and has brought representatives from Blue Origin to meet with students .
"The children are really excited to work for companies like that," he said.
For now, the focus will be on the technical capabilities of the lunar lander, which will give the ASU the necessary information to plan payloads that "could range from very small instruments to large vehicles," Bell said.
The next step would be to find financing, he said.
"That funding will have to come from NASA, it will not be an ASU funding, it will be a few to tens to hundreds of millions of dollars," Bell said.
Because Blue Origin is a NASA partner, the money would come from NASA, he said. ASU could write proposals and grants that NASA would approve.
ASU also works with other companies. These types of relationships give the university a "good start" for its programs, ultimately for the benefit of students and education, Bell said.
The MoU, which Bell called "an association to carry out future projects", has not identified any specific project, but will take the ASU to a rocket company and allow it to prepare for possible landings, which would first entail ascertaining the basic parameters of what is going to be possible
The new campus space initiative is designed for these types of partnerships, Bell said. ASU has a "baseline" of knowledge and improved learning for students, while companies "are in this to make money".
However, Bell noted, twice, that the five-year term is "aggressive." If Bezos plans to put humans on the Moon within five years, it stands to reason that before that, his company would land robotic test missions as one that ASU could theoretically be part of. However, many steps would have to be overcome before that happened, including the New Glenn test launches and the fact that NASA and potential private donors would have to step up and help ASU reach the Moon.
Even if reaching the moon takes more than five years, what will be fun and educational for ASU students is to shoot the moon. And who knows what would happen if Bezos, Trump and NASA dropped a few billion dollars more in the effort? Maybe an ASU flag with mascot Sparky (and ASU president Michael Crow?) Be the next flag planted on the moon.