NASA’s next missions to land astronauts on the moon will be significantly different from the 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 investing billions to make this technology a reality: earlier this year, the space agency awarded a $3.4 billion contract to Blue Origin, a company founded by Jeff Bezos.
Previous contracts worth around $4 billion have been awarded to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is scheduled to fly the first two missions later this decade, followed by Blue Origin.
However, while SpaceX plans to refuel its massive Starship spacecraft in low-Earth orbit with a fleet of tankers, Blue Origin proposes something different: a reusable lunar lander that will remain in orbit around the moon between trips to the lunar surface. .
The company is also working on a resupply spacecraft called a “cislunar transporter” that will transport fuel from Earth orbit to lunar orbit, where it will connect to the lunar module.
Blue Origin’s plan
Here’s a look at the Blue Origin plan that NASA adopted, according to a report from The Washington Post:
- Launch to the moon
- Blue Origin’s lunar module, called Blue Moon, would be about 52 feet tall, with four legs. It would be launched on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.
- The lunar module would fly directly to the moon and remain in lunar orbit, where it would await refueling by the cislunar transporter.
- Cislunar conveyor assembly
- Blue Origin would then launch both parts of the cislunar carrier into low Earth orbit on a pair of New Glenn rockets. Once in Earth orbit, they will dock and then be refueled by another New Glenn rocket.
- Once fully fueled, the cislunar transporter would fly to the moon to rendezvous with the Blue Moon.
- After refueling, Blue Moon would dock with Gateway, the small space station that NASA plans to set up in lunar orbit. Then, he would wait for the arrival of the astronauts.
- The Orion crew capsule would launch atop a Space Launch System rocket and fly to Gateway.
- There, astronauts would transfer from Orion to Blue Moon via the Gateway.
- The Blue Moon would separate from the Gateway and prepare to travel to the moon’s surface.
- Moon landing
- Astronauts would stay inside the lunar module as it descends to the moon’s surface.
- The mission to the lunar surface is expected to last a week or more.
- Once the mission was complete, the Blue Moon would take off to take the astronauts back to the Gateway.
- There, they would re-enter the Orion capsule to begin the journey back to Earth.
- The lunar module would remain in lunar orbit, while the cislunar carrier would return to low Earth orbit awaiting its next mission.
NASA expects to find water in the form of ice in the permanently shadowed craters of the moon’s south pole. Water is vital not only to sustain human life; its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, can be used as rocket fuel.
That’s why Blue Origin proposes to power its lunar module with liquid forms of hydrogen and oxygen. Spacecraft that can be refueled can be used repeatedly, reducing the costs of space travel, something NASA hopes will allow for a more permanent presence on the moon and its orbit.