Blue Origin's first space tourism flight will be July 20

A 2017 photo shows Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos posing for the media at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
A 2017 photo shows Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos posing for the media at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEATTLE (REUTERS) - Blue Origin, billionaire Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, said on Wednesday (May 5) it is targeting July 20 for its first suborbital sightseeing trip on its New Shepard spacecraft, a landmark moment in a competition to usher in a new era of private commercial space travel.

Blue Origin also said it will offer one seat on the first flight to the winning bidder of a five-week online auction, the proceeds of which will be donated to the space firm’s foundation.

Blue Origin’s director of astronaut sales, Ariane Cornell, declined to disclose details on the general ticket prices the company will charge for future trips, which has been a closely guarded secret inside the company for years.

Reuters reported in 2018 that Blue Origin was planning to charge passengers at least US$200,000 (S$260,000) for the ride, based on an appraisal of rival plans from billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings and other considerations, though its thinking may have changed.

Wednesday’s announcement follows years of testing and development work that has included delays. After its first flight in July, Cornell said Blue would have “a couple more” crewed flights before the end of the year.

The New Shepard rocket-and-capsule combo is designed to autonomously fly six passengers more than 100km above Earth into suborbital space, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet before the pressurised capsule returns to earth under parachutes.

The capsule features six observation windows Blue Origin says are nearly three times as tall as those on a Boeing 747 jetliner and the largest ever used in space.

While celebrities and the uber-rich appear to be the core market for space tourist jaunts, at least initially, industry sources expect Blue Origin to include some philanthropic component to its ticket strategy.

A college science professor and an aerospace data analyst are among a four-member crew for a launch into orbit planned later this year by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, part of a charity drive billed as the first all-civilian spaceflight in history.

Virgin Galactic also aims to fly private customers in early 2022, after a first flight with Branson on board later this year.

Its zero-gravity experience is anchored by its SpaceShipTwo plane, and the company has ambitious plans to offer point-to-point travel between far-flung cities at near-space altitudes.

Virgin says it will charge more than US$250,000 for new reservations but has not announced final pricing. Sales will reopen following Branson’s flight.

Cornell declined to say when – or if – Bezos will take a trip to space on New Shepard.

Blue Origin’s announcement provides Bezos, who founded, sorely needed momentum while it protests SpaceX’s US$2.9 billion contract under Nasa’s high-profile programme to return Americans to the moon in coming years.