NASA, Blue Origin and the First Woman to the Moon

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Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin is all set to take the first woman to the moon. The moon has been a man’s land so far, but NASA is aiming to change it through its Artemis mission and Blue Origin is one among its partners. As the mission gets ready for take-off by 2024, what can we expect? 

Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos’s space company Blue Origin has announced that it is all set for a human landing on the moon’s surface under Artemis mission and will take the first woman to Earth’s natural satellite by 2024. On Saturday, the company’s official Instagram account posted a video of a BE-7 engine test.

“This is the engine that will take the first woman to the surface of the Moon. The BE-7 is a high-performance, additively-manufactured liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen lunar landing engine with 10,000 lbf of thrust — deep throttling down to 2,000 lbf for a precise landing on the Moon,” read the caption.

Blue Origin is one of the companies that was selected by NASA to build moon landers. What does Blue Origin intend to do, what is Artemis Mission and why does NASA want a woman on the moon? Let’s dive in.

Moon: A man’s land

It was on July 20, 1969, that Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon. The last time humans landed on the Earth’s natural satellite was in December 1972, during NASA’s Apollo 17 mission. Between this brief period of a little over three years, twelve men walked on the Moon, but not a single woman.

With the era of ‘Apollo’ over and ‘Artemis’ set to take over, NASA is aiming to change the image of the moon as an ‘all men’s land.’ Under the Artemis mission, it has announced that the first woman and the next man will land on the surface of the Moon in 2024. It is on track for sustainable human exploration of the moon for the first time in history. This means an increased focus on a sustained presence on the moon, with an emphasis on mobility to allow astronauts to explore the lunar surface more and conduct studies. It will involve multiple missions and multiple locations on the moon.

The outer space however has not been entirely alien to women. Including astronauts, cosmonauts and other specialists, so far 65 women have been to space, the first among them being Valentina Tereshkova, the Russian cosmonaut who flew on Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963 (two years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space). This, however, is just 11.5 per cent of the total of 566 people to have visited the territories beyond the earth.

What is NASA’s plan?

After the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, NASA drew curtains to its moon missions for a while owing primarily to budgetary reasons. Forty-seven years later in 2019, the American space agency announced the new lunar mission, named after Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. The mission was announced as a public-private partnership programme and will be carried out in three different phases. The ‘Artemis-1’ will be an unmanned mission and will be launched in 2021. The second phase, ‘Artemis-2’, will be a crewed mission and will take off in 2023. It will not land on the moon but will take the astronauts around it. 

Planned for the year 2024, ‘Artemis-3’ will ensure the return of the humans to the Moon’s surface. After the Space Launch System or the launch vehicle takes off, astronauts will travel about 2,40,000 miles aboard the Orion spacecraft to reach the lunar orbit. The aim is to get two astronauts to land near the south pole of the moon. Over the course of about seven days, they will collect samples and carry out experiments and then head back home to earth aboard Orion.

Read: NASA’s Next Moon Plan: All You Need to Know

A Multi-million fight 

NASA has selected three US companies – Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX – to design and develop human landing systems (HLS) for the programme. Each company will refine the concepts over a period of 10 months that will end in February 2021. Following this NASA will decide which lander to test first and will choose the company that has the highest probability of success by 2024.  The total combined value for all awarded contracts is $967 million which would fund the development works till February. More than half the amount – $579 million – went to Blue Origin. Dynetics received $253 million and SpaceX $135 million. 

Blue Origin and SpaceX were also among the companies that won contracts to make cargo deliveries to the moon last year. According to NASA although only one company would get to carry the first woman and next man into space, all three would be able to participate in the long run. Coming to the works of the three companies, Blue Origin is developing the Integrated Lander Vehicle – a three-stage lander to be launched on its own New Glenn Rocket System and ULA Vulcan, a heavy-lift launch vehicle. 

Dynetics, a Leidos company, is developing the Dynetics Human Landing System – a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan Launch System. SpaceX owned by maverick billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is developing the Starship – a fully integrated lander that will use the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket. 

Read: The Pirates of Outer Space

Landmark developments by the companies

  • In September, Dynetics completed building a full-scale human landing system test article that will be used for initial evaluations for NASA’s Artemis program. 
  • On 4 December, Blue Origin shared a video of the testing of its BE-7 rocket engine saying preparations are going on in full swing.
  • On 9 December, SpaceX is set to perform the first major flight test of its Starship spacecraft. NASA has selected SpaceX to develop a lunar optimized Starship to transport crew between lunar orbit and the surface of the Moon as part of the Artemis program.

Not stopping at the Moon

NASA’s forays to the Moon is by no means an end, but only a preparation for all that lies beyond missions to Mars and other galactic destinations. The agency plans to use the knowledge gained from the Artemis mission to make many more giant leaps. 

To put it in a different way, the landing of humans on the moon will be only a small step in the bigger plan of making arrangements for humans to settle outside the Earth. Both Musk and Bezos have faith in taking life beyond Earth. 

Bezos’s Blue Origin believes that in order to preserve Earth, humans must go to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy. During his visit to India in January, Bezos spoke about the need to preserve the earth by shifting the polluting industries out into space. While polluting space to protect the earth and how far can humans extend their sense of entitlement are topics for debate for another day, Bezos has eloquently spoken many a time about his vision to see ‘a trillion people in space, living not on moons or planets, but bucolic space colonies.’

On the other hand, Mars has been the major focus of SpaceX. Elon Musk has passionately spoken about colonising Mars myriad times, pointing out that it is one of Earth’s closest habitable neighbours. He believes that with a few changes, the red planet can be made suitable for human inhabitation. While he was reportedly earlier frustrated at NASA for not doing enough to get people to Mars, the Artemis mission which doesn’t limit its ambitions to the moon would seem to be in sync with his ambitions.

Read: 15 Interesting Facts about Elon Musk and SpaceX

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