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Jeff Bezos unveils Blue Moon lunar lander and plans for huge space colonies

CNET logo CNET 10/05/2019 Ben Fox Rubin
© Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Jeff Bezos , founder of Amazon and Blue Origin , unveiled on Thursday a new moon lander called Blue Moon, along with a smaller rover.

"This is an incredible vehicle and it's going to the moon," Bezos said at a press event at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, where he stood in front of the hulking new lander on stage.

At the event, Bezos, the world's richest person, described a grand, multigenerational vision of one day creating enormous space colonies in close proximity to Earth, as a way of expanding humanity to a trillion people. This concept, envisioned by physicist Gerard O'Neill in 1975, is something Bezos has talked up in a few interviews over the past year. He's looking to use Blue Origin, and the new lander, as early steps in this effort.

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"This is Maui on its best day all year long. No rain, no storms, no earthquakes," he said of these future space colonies, though he later added it'll be up to future generations to build these massive structures. He described these sci-fi concepts to a relatively small audience of roughly a hundred or more people while he walked across the stage in a gray jacket and jeans, with the darkened ballroom bathed in blue light and the walls decorated in sparkly star lights.

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Blue Moon was in development for three years and Bezos said Thursday that the larger variant of the lander will be able to bring Americans back to the moon by 2024. It'll be able to carry the rover that could do scientific missions and shoot off small satellites.

"It's time to go back to the moon, this time to stay," Bezos said.

The year 2024 is also the deadline the Trump administration has set for NASA to return astronauts to the surface of the moon, something Bezos referenced on stage. 

Bezos isn't the only billionaire pursuing lofty space dreams. Elon Musk's SpaceX  is further along in developing larger rockets for orbital space travel . Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is also working on space tourism. At least in the first few years, commercial space travel is expected to be so prohibitively expensive that only the superrich will be able to use these new services.

However, Bezos said Thursday that the early work of Blue Origin should help develop an infrastructure for space that'll give millions of people access to space travel and unlock the potential of countless future entrepreneurs and artists. A major need to do this work, he said, is because the Earth is "finite," so expanding to space will become a necessity one day to ensure humanity doesn't fall into rationing and stagnation.

"The solar system can support a trillion humans, and then we'd have 1,000 Mozarts and 1,000 Einsteins," Bezos said during a Yale Club talk in February. "Think how incredible and dynamic that civilization will be."

Aside from these huge goals, Blue Origin this year is starting with space tourism flights, in hopes of growing its revenue and training itself for consistent flights outside Earth's orbit.

Blue Origin first announced Thursday's press event last month with a cryptic tweet including only the date and an image of the Endurance, the ship Ernest Shackleton sailed to the Antarctic as part of a failed attempt to cross the frigid continent more than a century ago.

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Looking to inspire the next generation to keep up space development, Bezos announced the creation of the Club for the Future, which will focus on space-related activities for youths in grades K-12. The front rows of the event included dozens of kids who were the inaugural members of the new club.

The rare public appearance by Bezos in his capacity as space startup founder comes at a pivotal moment for Blue Origin. Last week it launched and landed one of its suborbital New Shepard rockets for the fifth time, bringing the company closer to its goal of developing reliably reusable rockets to make space travel much more accessible.

Also, Blue Origin has said repeatedly in recent months that it aims to launch a human to space aboard New Shepard for the first time later this year, paving the way for paying customers to experience microgravity.

Bezos' company is also building a bigger rocket, New Glenn, that'll compete with orbital class rockets like the SpaceX Falcon 9 to deliver commercial satellites and other large payloads to orbit.

Blue Origin is rapidly expanding its footprint at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it's manufacturing New Glenn on land leased from NASA. The first launch of Blue Origin's big rocket could come as soon as 2021.

As part of this ongoing space race, SpaceX, Amazon and others are planning to send into orbit thousands of satellites that'll one day be able to beam broadband internet to millions of people around the world. SpaceX's system is called Starlink, and Amazon's, which was first revealed last month, is dubbed Project Kuiper. Blue Origin, meanwhile, is partnering with satellite operator Telesat on yet another internet satellite project.

Over the past year, Bezos has spoken publicly at a handful of notable gatherings, including a Wired conference in San Francisco, the Economic Club in Washington, DC, and the Yale Club in New York. Still, he's rarely hosted his own press events in recent years. One of the last times he took the stage for his own announcement was in 2014 for the failed Fire Phone.

Related Slideshow [USA TODAY]

Next month, he's expected to speak at his new re:MARS science and tech conference in Las Vegas.

His appearance in DC on Thursday comes after a rocky start to the year, with his divorce from his longtime wife, MacKenzie, quickly turning into a gossipy tabloid controversy that included him accusing the National Enquirer of blackmail.

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