Blue Moon: Is this really it?

By Chris Stelter

Blue Moon, the recent announcement of an uncrewed lander by Blue Origin, had flare and pomp. A starfield surrounded the select audience as they watched Jeff Bezos, the richest man (okay, if you count his family) in the world, deliver an anticipated announcement. They waited patiently as Bezos gave his usual spiel about Earth being the best planet, about the criticality of reusability, about a trillion people living in O’Neil colonies, about moving heavy industry to space. Then Bezos unveiled…

An expendable descent stage with less payload capacity (3.5 tons) than the Apollo LM truck variant (5 tons). Because it uses liquid hydrogen, it’s very tall and therefore needs a sophisticated mechanism for unloading payloads.

It was so anti-climactic. Everyone knew Blue Origin was working on this lander, I was sure it was going to be something more important or at least *innovative*. I’m not sure if the rocket engine is pumpfed or not, but the lander is designed as if it’s pressure-fed, with Apollo-like large round tanks with external structure.

Its example mission is… landing several smaller payloads simultaneously. Basically, competing with all the smaller lunar lander companies out there. Super disappointing there as well.

It’s like a tiny, uncrewed version of Altair with all the drawbacks but without the advantages of a 16 ton payload capacity. And sure, they showed an ascent stage on top of it, but that appears to be provided by NASA.

In fact, let me list off some concepts I think are better:

1) Starship. Obviously. Fully reusable, much larger payload capacity, crew capable, and being crudely prototyped right now in Texas, not just made into a fancy mockup.

2) The reusable Lockheed Martin lander. Dinospace is not supposed to be this much better, but this is a lot more interesting than Blue Moon.

3) ULA/Masten Centaur/Xeus. More payload capacity, still hydrolox, much closer to the ground. Looks to be a more efficient design. Some of the hardware already exists in some form.

4) Altair. At least they were trying for more capability than Apollo.

5) Apollo LM/LMtruck. 5 ton payload capacity, much closer to the ground. Crewed variant was the only one that flew, so it started out crewed.

6) The Soviet LK lander. Crasher stage FTW. Less payload, but the Soviets did a fine job systems engineering a clever way of dealing with the constraints they were given by the much-less-to-TLI N-1 rocket.

7) Various crasher/uncrasher lander concepts, as discussed here.

8) Delta Clipper on the Moon. If Delta Clipper had been successful, there was thought given to variants of it for Moon or Mars. If you have a SSTO VTVL RLV, why not refuel and go to the Moon? Basically, like Starship. Bezos hired a bunch of old DC-X folk. Why such a mundane lunar architecture?

Blue Origin gets like $1 billion per year from Bezos. Couldn’t they come up with something better than Blue Moon? Or at least something that didn’t look designed to squash the other small lunar lander outfits? A reusable upper stage? A reusable lander? Anything?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Blue Moon: Is this really it?

  1. Archibald says:

    I really don’t understand Jeff Bezos approach. Too many times, if looks like he is desperately trying to catch up with Musk / SpaceX… without a BFS/BFR, only an improved F9R / Dragon 2 system. And without a big goal like Mars.
    It is pretty hard to get innovative against the tyranny of the rocket equation, for sure. That’s the reason why so many newspace companies are building 1 mt, expendable, two stage classic chemical rockets.
    But Bezos could have tried to be more innovative in his approach, or at least to go faster – considering he has thrice more money than Musk. For example, he could have build something like Sea Dragon or Rombus or Space Freighter – huge vehicles with enormous payloads, to achieve at least the dream of Gerard K. O’Neill he is so fond of. Space Colonies request very large launch vehicles. And Bezos has the huge, immense fortune to build them.
    Instead he has spent the last 15 years launching tiny, suborbital New Shepard a mere 12 times. With the previous vehicles since 2005 (Charon, PM2) that’s less than 20 flights, overall, for Blue Origin.
    And that lander, as you say, is not much.
    I don’t understand, really. Bezos has a huge potential and is presently wasting it.

  2. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Chris,

    While it’s good to have a decent medium-performance lander under development that has enough money behind it that it has a decent shot of making it to market… I agree with you that it’s somewhat underwhelmingly unimaginative of a design. I agree that an SSTO, DTAL/Xeus style horizontal lander, or an uncrasher TSTO all would’ve been a lot more interesting. I think it’s actually better than LSAM in that a) it doesn’t require an SLS sized behemoth to get to lunar orbit, and b) with refueling in LLO you could probably get the payload up substantially, and c) doesn’t require as crazy of a crane to get payloads down (LSAM was four stories off the surface, the LM SSTO would be similar or higher, and don’t even get me started on Starship).

    There are some pluses, and if this is all we ended up with after 5yrs it would still be an improvement on the status quo. But it does feel like a missed opportunity.

    ~Jon

  3. Jim Davis says:

    It was so anti-climactic.

    You want groundbreaking announcements like Delta Clipper, VentureStar, Roton, Pioneer Rocketplane, Skylon, Stratolaunch, etc?

    I’ll take anti-climatic every time.

  4. DougSpace says:

    Might the disappointment be that this lander would launch in the New Glenn and not the New Armstrong — Hence, the measly 3.6 tonne landed payload. The lander is overkill for scientific rovers (do we really need four rovers at one location?) yet it is underkill for crew (flags & footprints) or cargo in support of crew. It strikes me that the New Glenn was designed to find its niche with GEO comm sats and then they tried to shoehorn it into the Administration’s lunar vision. BO’s slow-going approach means that it has the wrong vehicle for the right time.

  5. Chris Stelter says:

    Jim Davis: Just because something isn’t groundbreaking doesn’t mean it has a higher chance of happening any time soon.

  6. George Turner says:

    The lander is overkill for scientific rovers (do we really need four rovers at one location?)

    Two words: Lunar battlebots.

    Over at Transterrestrial Musings (whose comments are currently down) I’d suggested using two BO engine systems on the ends of a truss that has the cargo suspended underneath. It’s a legged version of the same idea as the Curiosity Sky Crane system but with half the engines, on the theory that you could successfully operate a lander with two engines since you can already fly landers that use one or four.

    Four engines would be great but they’re already pushing New Glenn to get their single-engine lander there, and given that the engine is already built, they’d either have to get deeper throttling out of it or deliver a heavier payload that would be beyond New Glenn’s capabilities.

    Another odd architecture would be separating the descent stage functionality from the cargo to be delivered. Suppose you took the heart of a BO descent stage and designed it to make a hard dock with the side of a cargo or habitation module. You send the cargo into lunar orbit, and then send enough BO descent stages deliver it to the surface. It might take two or it might take ten, depending on the mass of the cargo module.

  7. peterh says:

    A bulky fuel like LH2 in a heavy pressure fed tank seems poorly considered.

    It’s highly unconventional, but the payload between tanks and engines, closer to the ground, is a possibility.

  8. George Turner says:

    The BE-7 lander engine isn’t pressure fed, it uses a dual expander cycle with separate LH2 and LOX pumps. That’s a sensible choice for a descent engine.

    An ascent engine, yet to be built, would likely be pressure fed, though I think a solid would also work quite well for that. It’s an unconventional choice, but they perform as well as hypergolics and could probably sit up there for years without any issues unless day/night thermal cycling is a problem. An ascent stage would already have a high-torque RCS system, so the main engine might not even need thrust vector control. There are also some advantages to the simplicity of swapping out a solid motor instead of trying to refuel by pumping liquids between vehicles in lunar orbit.

    Another path they could have taken is an uncrasher descent stage, which among other things, means they don’t have to try to build everything around a pair of big round fuel tanks, which is more than a bit inconvenient.

  9. Eric Martin Ralph says:

    Ironically, SpaceX has near-silently announced a competing lander with far more flight heritage. It’s supposed to be capable of delivering ~12,000 kg to the lunar surface, would have autonomous RNDZ and docking capabilities and be based on proven Dragon 2/Falcon 9 hardware, would launch on Falcon Heavy, and could be ready as early as 2023.

    Of course, it’s a paper study funded by NASA, but the hardware it would theoretically be based on is at least as mature as anything Blue Origin has shown off. My understanding of the official information makes it sound like SpaceX is basically proposing a modernized Apollo Service Module with Crew Dragon avionics/docking hardware, vacuum-optimized SuperDraco(s), and propellant tanks derived from Falcon 9 S2. Per official info, it could be used as a descent stage but would also work as an excellent transfer stage/third stage with minimal modification.

    Given Blue Origin’s track record of agonizingly slow and inefficient development of awesome ideas, I’m honestly more excited about SpaceX’s paper lander study than Blue Moon.

  10. George Turner says:

    That’s very interesting. I hadn’t heard a thing about it.

  11. George Turner says:

    A few minutes ago I realized that it might be relatively easy to modify a Raptor engine to run on a mix of methane and kerosene with a shaft extension on one side of its existing methane turbopump. This would dramatically increase the mass of fuel in the same tank volume, since kerosene is twice as dense as liquid methane. Yes, it means running a tri-fuel mix with three propellant tanks instead of two, but it might pay off by greatly increasing the liftoff weight without upping the physical size of the rocket (though that might require more engines).

    Much of the Raptor’s ISP increase comes from using a full-flow staged combustion cycle, in which all the LOX runs through the LOX pump and then through the LOX pump turbine, with only a small bit of fuel mixed in the preburner. That mix is so far off stoichiometric that the oxygen-rich exhaust doesn’t have the high turbine inlet temperatures that the NK-33 or RD-180 have to deal with, so no miracles of metallurgy are required. The methane turbopump is also full flow, so all the methane flows through pump, preburner, and turbine, mirroring the oxidizer pump.

    The Merlin doesn’t use staged combustion because the combustion products of kerosene that has been run through a pre-burner cause problems downstream with coking, clogging, and sooting, which is not something a cooling system or injectors would be very happy about.

    But the methane-LOX full-flow staged combustion cycle is already developed and working on the Raptor. My idea is to cut the amount of methane flowing through the methane pump and turbine, running the methane preburner a bit closer to stoichiometric. Since that pump is fuel rich instead of oxygen rich, there should be plenty of thermal margin in the existing design.

    So, all that’s required for the modification is to extend the turbine shaft on the methane pump and add another pump for kerosene. The kerosene doesn’t get used in any preburner, it doesn’t flow through any turbine, and it’s not used as coolant, so it’s just straight kerosene that is getting pumped from a tank into the combustion chamber, so it can’t cause any problems with cooling or injectors.

    The technique would allow them to add a small kerosene tank (displacing into the methane tank’s volume) to increase the first stage fuel mass and fuel fraction without increasing the height or diameter of the first stage. This enhancement could be pursued until the first stage is essentially a LOX/kerosene booster with a small methane tank that’s primarily just for running the fuel turbopump in a staged combustion cycle.

    What it would do is allow them to get all the benefits of LOX kerosene in a staged combustion cycle without any of the usual detriments of running LOX kerosene in a staged combustion cycle, and by only making minor modifications to the engine.

  12. Zed_WEASEL says:

    While the Blue Moon lander kind of remind me of a dwarf Altair. What is more interesting is that the LOX & LH propellant combo also feeds into a fuel cell system. So as long as there is enough stuff in the propellant tanks you could over-night on the Moon.

    Wonder if Blue is going attempt to put a pop off crasher propellant module on top of the Blue Moon stack so that the lander don’t spend much of the onboard propellants during the landing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *