Blue Origin, the rocket maker founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, has set July 20 for its first mission carrying people to space.
The company plans to auction off one seat on its New Shepard rocket for the 11-minute trip to suborbital space, an altitude of about 100 kilometers (62 miles). That seat will be the only one available for purchase on the flight, and the proceeds will go to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future, which promotes math and science education.
The plans signal significant progress for Blue Origin as it vies with Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies and Richard Branson-backed Virgin Galactic Holdings to create a market for tourism rides into space. Bezos hinted on social media after an April 14 test flight that the time for Blue Origin to carry passengers was nearing.
“After the last flight we said it’s time, let’s put people on board,” Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut sales, said Wednesday on a video call with reporters.
The date for the company’s first flight with a crew coincides with the 52nd anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, although Blue Origin executives didn’t mention that on the call.
The company has collected sufficient data from 15 rocket test flights and 16 capsule landings to be ready for operational service, Cornell said. The Kent, Washington-based company will conduct “a couple more” flights with people this year after the July trip, she said.
Blue Origin declined to say how many people will fly on the company’s initial foray with humans or whether they’ll be employees or customers. The company also declined to offer details about its ticket prices.
For its part, SpaceX on Wednesday pulled off a mostly flawless landing of its newest and biggest rocket, as the model’s fifth test flight opened the door to higher altitude excursions. The Starship SN-15 prototype lifted off from SpaceX’s seaside launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas, and flew to an altitude of about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) before a controlled descent, based on live video streamed by the company. The landing was marred only by a small fire at the bottom of the vehicle that was extinguished after a few minutes.
The milestone achievement paves the way for more ambitious tests of a rocket that SpaceX founder Elon Musk envisions as a future workhorse for trips to the moon and Mars. NASA recently picked SpaceX to develop a moon-landing system for astronauts with Starship.
The previous Starship rocket test flight, on March 30, sent smoking debris raining down on the area after a mishap. An earlier prototype touched down at a slight incline, only to be engulfed in flames shortly after landing. Two previous efforts ended in fireballs. No people were aboard any of the spacecraft.
Blue Origin eventually plans to carry six astronauts on flights that will cross the so-called Karman line, a space border 100 kilometers up. A crew capsule separates during flight, then lands with parachutes a few miles from the reusable New Shepard rocket. The 60-foot (18-meter) New Shepard landed successfully at Blue Origin’s West Texas launch area last month in its 15th test flight.
Customers will have a four-day experience, including three days of preflight training at the company’s launch site near Van Horn, Texas, about 120 miles southeast of El Paso. The company has built accommodations, including a cafeteria, and expects the scenic mountains and high-plains desert to be another attraction, Cornell said.
“They can take in the beautiful scenery before they have their flight of a lifetime,” she said.
Virgin Galactic has about 600 customers who have paid as much as $250,000 apiece for a future ride to space. The company stopped taking reservations in late 2018 but plans to resume later this year after it ferries Branson to suborbital space on one of its first flights. Executives have said pricing is likely to rise because of demand.
SpaceX is also preparing for paying customers. As soon as September, Musk’s company will fly technology entrepreneur Jared Isaacman and three other people on a multiday mission to orbit Earth. The trip was designed to raise money and awareness for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
SpaceX also will fly four men to the International Space Station next year on a private mission for Axiom Space Inc.
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