Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin says it will take a civilian to space in July

Jeff Bezos’s space exploration company Blue Origin has launched an online auction for the first civilian seat aboard its tourism spacecraft, saying it will take flight on July 20.

If successful, the trip on New Shepard would be the first commercial space flight to take a civilian beyond the Kármán line, the internationally recognised edge of space, more than 60 miles above earth.

“This seat will change how you see the world,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday.

The achievement would give Blue Origin, which has been funded with billions of dollars from the Amazon founder, some much-needed momentum in the billionaire space race, beating both Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX in taking a civilian to space.

When announcing his intention to step aside as Amazon chief executive later this year, Bezos emphasised his desire to devote more time to working on Blue Origin as a key motivation.

The company has faltered in its efforts to attract lucrative commercial and government contracts in the nascent space industry. It was beaten by SpaceX in its bid to work with Nasa in returning astronauts to the moon by 2024. The decision is being appealed.

The New Shepard capsule lands in the west Texas desert after a test flight in late April
New Shepard booster rocket lands
The New Shepard booster rocket lands after the same mission into space

While a handful of private citizens have travelled to space in the past, tagging along with government missions, Blue Origin hopes its New Shepard mission — named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space — will herald an era of frequent civilian space travel, sparking renewed public interest and helping to bring urgency to the fight against climate change.

Blue Origin declined to comment on whether Bezos himself planned to ever take the trip.

The announcement on Wednesday, which did not include any information regarding future ticket sales or pricing, was made to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Shepard’s flight.

“In the decades since,” the company said, “fewer than 600 astronauts have been to space above the Kármán line to see the borderless Earth and the thin limb of our atmosphere. They all say this experience changes them.”

The winning bidder, who will be one of six passengers on board, will get just a few minutes to gaze at the Earth and experience zero gravity, in a trip that in total lasts about 11 minutes from take-off to landing.

Sealed bidding began on Wednesday and will conclude with a final live auction on June 12. The proceeds will go towards Blue Origin’s charity foundation, Club for the Future, which supports education programmes in the Stem subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Blue Origin believes it can get civilians to space before Virgin Galactic, which began selling its tickets in 2005 starting at $200,000 each, a price that has since increased.

Despite the project being hit with multiple and severe setbacks, including a fatal accident involving one of its pilots, Virgin Galactic said it had more than 600 “future astronauts” interested and had taken in excess of $80m in booking deposits. However, it does not expect to fly private customers until 2022.

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s approach to space tourism will be to take the passengers further out, into low orbit, in a trip that lasts several days and comes at significantly greater cost. The mission, named Inspiration4, is being funded by the billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, a professional jet pilot. Its total costs are yet to be disclosed.

Early next year SpaceX also plans to take three civilians to the International Space Station — at a cost of $55m each.

Blue Origin’s approach, at least for now, is intended to offer a more affordable way for civilians to experience space travel with only a day’s basic training — an appealing prospect, suggested Manny Shar, head of analytics at the space-focused consultancy BryceTech.

“We’ve done several surveys of high net-worth individuals,” he said. “There’s a keen interest among people who can afford these flights. So clearly, this market is real.”

Graphic showing the planned flight profile for the New Shepard rocket

There have so far been 15 unmanned test flights of New Shepard, which consists of a capsule launched by a rocket that releases it at 250,000 feet. All have been successful with the exception of the first, in April 2015, when the rocket suffered a crash landing, though the capsule returned to Earth safely.

The string of successful tests means that while Blue Origin is not the first company to sell tickets for a dedicated space tourism trip, it does stand a strong chance of being the first to actually honour them, suggested Thomas Markuzic, chief executive of Firefly Aerospace, and a former engineer at Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

“When it comes to space tourism, no one has done it as carefully and rigorously as Blue Origin,” Markuzic said. “If Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin are out there, saying that they’re ready to go, I truly believe that they are ready to go.”

Bezos has so far bankrolled the company by selling his Amazon stock. In 2018 he said he planned to plough about $1bn into the effort a year. But any future return on that investment would require Blue Origin to more forcefully compete against SpaceX’s commercial success, said Chris Quilty, a leading space strategy consultant.

“Space tourism is very much a side note to the core industry,” he said, noting that development of New Glenn, Blue Origin’s heavy-lift rocket, had been delayed following the US Space Force’s decision in August to no longer work with Blue Origin on phase 2 of its National Security Space Launch project. The contract instead went to SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed Martin and Boeing joint venture.

The New Shepard capsule which will carry passengers into space after a successful test flight earlier this year
The Blue Moon lander, designed by Blue Origin to carry payloads to the Moon © Blue Origin

As a result, the maiden flight of New Glenn is not expected until late 2022, having initially been scheduled for 2020.

Last month’s announcement that Blue Origin had failed to win the Nasa contract to return astronauts on the Moon was said to have been an issue of pricing, with SpaceX’s $2.9bn offer beating Blue Origin by a “wide margin”, according to documents leaked to The Washington Post.

Blue Origin — as well as a third player, Dynetics — have appealed against the decision, saying Nasa had “moved the goalposts at the last minute” on the plan, particularly when it came to the importance of cost in its decision. Such appeals are rarely successful, Quilty said.

“I guess the broader question,” he added, “is how much money is [Blue Origin] willing to lose in order to gain market share, or a seat at the table, relative to SpaceX?”

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