Blue Origin’s chief architect lifts the veil on moon startup

Gary Lai’s resume features his status as chief architect and pioneer spaceflier at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — but when he received a Pathfinder Award this weekend at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, the veteran engineer highlighted a lesser-known job, as co-founder and chief technology officer of a moon-centric startup that’s still in stealth mode.

“We aim to be the first company that harvests natural resources from the moon to use here on Earth,” Lai told an audience of about 400 banquet-goers on Oct. 28. “We’re building a completely novel approach to extract those resources, efficiently, cost-effectively and also responsibly. The goal is really to create a sustainable in-space economy.”

The Tacoma, Wash.-based startup, called Interlune, has actually been around for about three years — but it’s been shrouded in secrecy long enough that Lai can still be considered a co-founder. Lai said the other founders include Rob Meyerson, who was Blue Origin’s president from 2003 to 2018; and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a geologist who set foot on the moon in 1972 and served in the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 1983.

Lai noted that Interlune recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation. That $246,000 grant supports efforts to develop a system that could sort out moon dirt by particle size.

Neither Lai nor Meyerson, who was in the audience cheering him on, was willing to say much more about Interlune, due to the fact that the venture is still in stealth. But a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicates that the venture raised $1.85 million in seed funding last year from five unnamed investors.

The SEC form also names longtime aerospace industry executive Indra Hornsby as an officer of the company, and lists Estes Park, Colo., as Interlune’s headquarters. However, Hornsby’s LinkedIn page says she’s currently an adviser and a former chief operating officer. Other documents indicate that Tacoma, Meyerson’s home base, has become Interlune’s HQ.

Lai said that he would continue to advise Blue Origin on a part-time basis, focusing on advanced concepts that include the Blue Moon lunar landing system. But going forward, Lai plans to give more attention to what humans will be doing on the moon after they land.


Jeff Bezos and NASA’s chief share a peek at lunar lander

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson today provided a look at coming attractions in the form of a social-media glimpse at Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander, festooned with a golden feather logo.

In a series of posts to X / Twitter and Instagram, Bezos and Nelson showed off a mockup of the nearly three-story-tall Blue Moon MK1 cargo lander, which is taking shape at Blue Origin’s production facility in Huntsville, Ala.

“MK1’s early missions will pave the way and prove technologies for our MK2 lander for @nasa’s Human Landing System,” Bezos said on Instagram. He also recapped a few technical details — noting that the MK1 is designed to deliver up to 3 tons of cargo to anywhere on the moon’s surface, and that it’ll fit in the 7-meter fairing of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. New Glenn is slated for its first launch next year.


FAA finishes investigation of Blue Origin launch mishap

The Federal Aviation Administration says that it’s closed its investigation of last year’s mishap involving Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket ship, but that Jeff Bezos’ space venture isn’t yet cleared to resume flights.

New Shepard’s engine anomaly occurred during an uncrewed research flight on Sept. 12, 2022, and led to the suspension of further flights. The booster’s misfire marked a rare setback for the New Shepard program, which had conducted more than 20 successful launches at Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas — including six missions that provided suborbital space trips to a total of 31 people.

During last year’s aborted mission, Blue Origin’s launch escape system worked as planned, blasting the capsule away from the booster for a parachute-assisted landing while the booster fell onto the Texas spaceport’s open terrain. The company said that if people had been in the capsule, they would have survived. No one was hurt on the ground.

This March, Blue Origin reported that the booster’s BE-3 rocket engine malfunctioned when its nozzle suffered a structural failure, due to engine operating temperatures that were higher than expected. The FAA said its final report reflects that conclusion.

The FAA also said Blue Origin was required to take 21 corrective actions to prevent a reoccurrence of the mishap. Those measures included a redesign of the engine and nozzle components to improve structural performance during operation, plus organizational changes.

Back in March, Blue Origin said it had already begun implementing corrective actions. “We’ve received the FAA’s letter and plan to fly soon,” the company said today in a posting to X / Twitter.


Blue Origin’s next CEO has a mission: Speed it up!

Jeff Bezos’ selection of Amazon devices chief Dave Limp as the next CEO of his Blue Origin space venture could well mark the start of a speed-up in the company’s tortoise-like pace.

For years, Bezos has sent out vibes that it might be OK to take it slow in the space race with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. He’d probably deny that’s the case, but it’s a fact that Blue Origin’s mascot is the tortoise rather than the hare in the tale from Aesop’s Fables, and that the company’s motto is “Gradatim Ferociter” — Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.” When it comes to space development, Bezos’ favorite sayings include “Slow Is Smooth, and Smooth Is Fast” and “We Don’t Skip Steps.”

Some in the space business would argue that going slow has put Blue Origin so far behind SpaceX that it’ll be difficult if not impossible to catch up.


Jeff Bezos picks Amazon exec to be Blue Origin’s CEO

Blue Origin has confirmed that Dave Limp, who is leaving his post as Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, will take over as the CEO of Jeff Bezos’ privately held space venture.

The current CEO, longtime aerospace executive Bob Smith, is retiring from the post but will stay on with Blue Origin until January to help with the transition, a company spokesperson told me in an email.

Limp presided over Amazon’s Echo hardware line and its Alexa voice assistant business, among other initiatives. The most relevant initiative for Blue Origin would be his oversight of Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite project, which is due to have its first prototype satellites launched as soon as next month. Those satellites will be sent into low Earth orbit on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, but Blue Origin is a major contractor for the Kuiper launches to come.

Reports about the transition began percolating out on social media today, after Blue Origin distributed internal memos to the company’s staff. In today’s emailed statement, Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin praised Limp’s record at Amazon.


Blue Origin space venture weathers a rare round of layoffs

Several employees at Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin are reporting that they’ve been laid off, marking a rare turnabout in the rapid growth of Jeff Bezos’ space venture.

The reduction in force appears to be focused in the areas of human resources and talent acquisition, based on employees’ postings to LinkedIn.

TechCrunch’s Aria Alamalhodaei, who reported the layoff trend on X / Twitter, said it looked as if “some (but not all) folks were given the opportunity to find another role” within the privately held company.

Micah Thornton, a production control specialist at Blue Origin, wrote on LinkedIn that “several people from the Blue Origin Space Human Resource/Talent Acquisition team have been let go due to downsizing.”

Several other employees wrote that they were laid off on Tuesday and are seeking new roles elsewhere. We’ve reached out to Blue Origin and will be updating this story with anything further that we can pass along.

Founded in 2000, Blue Origin’s employment profile has been trending sharply upward in recent years, due to projects that include the suborbital New Shepard program (currently grounded after a launch anomaly that occurred a year ago), the BE-4 rocket engine and the orbital-class New Glenn rocket, the Blue Moon lunar lander and the Orbital Reef space station.


NASA backs Blue Origin plan to make solar cells on moon

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has won $34.7 million in funding from NASA to support the development of a system for producing solar cells on the moon from materials that are available on site.

The Blue Alchemist project is one of 11 proposals winning support from the space agency’s Tipping Point program, which partners with commercial ventures to back technologies that could contribute to long-term space exploration.

“Harnessing the vast resources in space to benefit Earth is part of our mission, and we’re inspired and humbled to receive this investment from NASA to advance our innovation,” Pat Remias, vice president for Blue Origin’s Capabilities Directorate, Space Systems Development, said today in a news release. “First we return humans to the moon, then we start to ‘live off the land.’”

Blue Alchemist would use lunar regolith — the dust and crushed rock that covers the moon’s surface — as the raw material for solar cells and electrical transmission wire. Oxygen, iron, silicon and aluminum would be extracted through a process known as molten regolith electrolysis, and fed into the manufacturing process. The oxygen could be used for life support or for rocket propulsion.

Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin has been working on the technology over the past couple of years, with Earth-produced simulants taking the place of lunar regolith.

Blue Origin is also on the team for another Tipping Point project, led by Washington, D.C.-based Zeno Power Systems. Zeno was awarded $15 million for Project Harmonia, which aims to create a new type of radioisotope power supply for the Artemis moon program that uses americium-241 as fuel.


Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine fails during testing

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture confirmed that one of its BE-4 rocket engines suffered a significant anomaly during testing at its West Texas facility in late June.

The incident first came to light today in a report from CNBC, which quoted unnamed sources as saying that the engine detonated about 10 seconds into a test firing on June 30. CNBC said the engine was meant to be used for the second launch of United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket. That launch, known as Cert-2, is meant to send Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane on an uncrewed cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station.

Blue Origin already has delivered two BE-4 engines to ULA for the first Vulcan launch, Cert-1, which is tasked with deploying the first two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband network into low Earth orbit as well as sending Astrobotic’s robotic lunar lander on its way to the moon.

CNBC quoted a ULA spokesperson as saying that the newly reported anomaly was “not expected to impact our plans” for Cert-1. The BE-4 engines for Cert-1 were cleared for use after acceptance testing and a flight readiness firing test.

The cause of last month’s anomaly is under investigation, Blue Origin said today in an emailed statement.


NASA’s chief is coming to Seattle area for space summit

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson will visit Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in Kent, Wash., to get a firsthand look at the Seattle area’s growing space industry.

Tje Washington State Space Summit on July 5 will feature a trade show with nearly 20 regional space companies, plus a panel discussion that will focus on the economic opportunities opening up on the space frontier over the coming decade. The summit will be hosted by Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate committee that oversees NASA — and who played a leading role in passage of the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act last year.

“Washington’s space industry has doubled in just four years, a success story our whole state can be proud of,” Cantwell said today in a news release announcing the summit. “More than 13,000 Washingtonians work in this growing industry, which will help send the first American woman to the moon and the first person to Mars.”

Cantwell said Nelson “will see for himself what new investments in the state can deliver for the nation – from high-rate composite aircraft manufacturing to building new space stations.” Boeing has been pioneering aerospace applications for carbon composites at its aircraft manufacturing facilities in the Seattle area, while Blue Origin and Marysville, Wash.-based Gravitics are among regional companies working on commercial space stations.

Nelson said that “NASA’s work with Washington commercial space companies and academic institutions demonstrates the power of investing in America.”


Blue Origin will work with NASA on orbital crew transport

NASA says it will collaborate with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture on the development of new space transportation capabilities that will provide high-frequency access to low Earth orbit for astronauts and cargo.

The project is one of seven selected for the second round of NASA’s Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities initiative, or CCSC-2. The first round began in 2014. All of the companies involved in CCSC-2 will work with NASA under the terms of unfunded Space Act Agreements. That means no money will change hands, but NASA will make its expertise available for the companies’ projects.

“It is great to see companies invest their own capital toward innovative commercial space capabilities, and we’ve seen how these types of partnerships benefit both the private sector and NASA,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, said today in a news release.