NASA’s next missions to land astronauts on the moon will be markedly different from its last one in 1972. Instead of flying directly to the moon, the spacecraft will be refueled in transit — an innovation that could transform the way humans explore the cosmos.
In addition to possibly making regular trips to the moon less expensive, in-flight refueling could enable missions deeper into space. NASA is spending billions to help make the technology a reality: Earlier this year, the space agency awarded a $3.4 billion contract to Blue Origin, the venture founded by Jeff Bezos. Previous contracts worth about $4 billion went to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is scheduled to fly the first two missions later this decade, with Blue Origin to follow.
But while SpaceX intends to refuel its massive Starship in low Earth orbit with a fleet of tanker spacecraft, Blue Origin proposes something different: a reusable lunar lander that will stay in orbit around the moon between trips to the lunar surface. The company also is working on a refueling spacecraft it calls a cislunar transporter that will carry fuel from Earth orbit to lunar orbit, where it will link up with the lander. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Here’s a look at the Blue Origin plan NASA has embraced:
NASA hopes to find water in the form of ice in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar south pole. Water is not only vital to sustain human life; its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, can be used as rocket fuel. That’s why Blue Origin is proposing powering its lander with the liquid forms of hydrogen and oxygen. Spacecraft that can be refueled could be used again and again, driving down the cost of space travel, NASA hopes, and allowing a more permanent presence on and around the moon.