Did Bezos just save NASA's Project Artemis moon mission?

Did Bezos just save NASA's Project Artemis moon mission?
© Getty Images

When Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosBiden criticizes Amazon for paying Jeff Bezos in corporate taxes Biden criticizes Amazon for paying Jeff Bezos in corporate taxes Hillicon Valley: YouTube under fire | FCC gets tough on robocalls | Maine governor signs strict privacy bill | Amazon says delivery drones coming in 'months' MORE recently presented his vision of a space future he declared, “It’s time to go back to the moon — this time to stay.” Whether he knew it or not, the CEO of Amazon.com and Blue Origin was echoing the words of the late President George H. W. Bush when he announced the Space Exploration Initiative some 30 years ago. Bush’s attempt to start a deep space exploration program failed, largely due to political considerations. Bezos’ announcement may have ensured that the latest attempt to send American astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars will succeed. 

Besides grand visions of humans living in gigantic space colonies, Bezos rolled out a full-scale model of the lunar lander that his company, Blue Moon, has been developing for three years. Blue Moon will be capable of delivering 3.6 tons of cargo to the lunar surface, anything from habitats to rovers to supplies for astronauts living and working on the moon.

ADVERTISEMENT

A “stretch tank” version will be able to deliver 6.5 tons to the moon, which means that it can carry an ascent stage with astronauts. Blue Origin intends to bid on a contract NASA is presenting for the descent stage portion of the multi-stage lunar lander it needs to achieve lunar mission and subsequent flights to the lunar surface to build and service a lunar base. 

The fact that Bezos and his engineers have a three-year head start means that he has an enormous advantage over most of his competitors. The exception is Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskUS denies Tesla's Chinese tariff relief request US denies Tesla's Chinese tariff relief request British diver who rescued Thai soccer players, feuded with Elon Musk receives top royal honor MORE’s SpaceX, which is developing a spacecraft at its facility in Boca Chica in South Texas that could serve as a lunar lander. The two rivals will likely be in a stiff competition for the contract to build the vehicle that will deliver the first Americans to the lunar surface since December 1972 with older aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin and smaller upstarts like Moon Express and Astrobotic. 

The deeper importance of Bezos’ announcement is that the richest man in the world, the person who revolutionized the way we shop, supports NASA’s plan to return to the moon, recently named Project Artemis, and is willing to spend his own money to develop a lunar lander that will help make that happen. That a single human being would have both the will and the ability to do such a thing was unimaginable, outside of science fiction, 50 years ago when men first walked on the moon.

When Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceWhite House crowd sings 'Happy Birthday' to Trump Trump won't say if he'd endorse Pence in 2024 Trump has discussed backing Amash challenger: report MORE first announced that NASA would be charged with landing “the next man and the first woman” on the moon five years hence, the proposal ran into a firestorm of skepticism in both the media and Congress. The fact that members of Congress, which must authorize payment for the sprint to the moon, are pushing back on it is concerning to say the least. If Congress does not appropriate the money, the return to the moon will have failed on launch, for the third time in a generation, because of politics. 

One aspect of Project Artemis that is bound to direct the attention of Congress is that the Trump administration intends to tap surplus funds from Pell Grants to pay for it. The AP notes that the Pell Grant account has a surplus of $9 billion since enrollment in the program has declined in the past eight years. Pell Grants, which pay for poor students to go to college, is a popular program, which may make shifting the surplus funds to Artemis a tough sell, even though the program will not get cut for students who access it.

Bezos’ announcement of support for the Project Artemis, coming as it does from the richest man in the world, should prove to be an incentive for the people who write the checks for NASA to reconsider any opposition they might harbor for the mission. NASA recently revealed that it will need an extra $1.6 billion for the fiscal year 2020 for the mission. Congress will then have to add that extra money to the appropriation bills that fund the space agency to make the mission happen.

NASA and commercial companies like Blue Origin, in turn, will have to perform to make sure that no cost overruns and schedule delays occur. If everyone does what they are supposed to, the start of humankind’s breakout into deep space, and all that implies, can at last begin. 

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”