Things have been heating up lately over at Blue Origin, the commercial spaceflight company launched by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Since Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon to take a more hands-on role with his other projects, the company has made some rather positive strides. This includes a “dress rehearsal” test flight that took place on April 14th and brought their New Shepard a step closer to bringing passengers to space.
Following the success of this flight, Blue Origin recently announced they are planning to conduct the first crewed flight with the New Shepard by July 20th. In addition to the Blue Origin astronaut crew, one seat is being set aside for a commercial passenger. As of May 5th, Blue Origin announced that this ticket will be available for auction and that the proceeds will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future.
The announcement coincided with the 60th anniversary of the first crewed flight to space by an American astronaut. The astronaut in question was none other than the namesake of the Blue Origin spacecraft – Alan Shepard, who flew to space on May 5th, 1961 aboard the Freedom 7 capsule as part of the Project Mercury. Shepard was the first of seven astronauts (the Mercury Seven) who would go to space between 1961 and 1963.
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Shepard would also go on to command the Apollo 14 mission and was one of the two mission astronauts to walk on the Moon. Shepard passed away on July 21st, 1998, in Pebble Beach, California, having been diagnosed with leukemia two years before. His wife passed away a little over a month later, and both were cremated and their ashes were spread by Navy Helicopter over Stillwater Cove near their home.
As Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut sales said during a May 5th press conference:
“We are selling the very first seat on New Shepard. The auction is a five-week-or-so, three-phase process that starts today… Anybody can go onto Blue Origin dot com and register and start their bidding today… Let’s say, the most active bidders, they’re gonna be very clear on our radar, so when we do go to open up those tickets, we’ll know who to go to contact.”
Phase One of the auction began on May 5th with sealed online bidding, during which time all bids will be kept invisible on the auction website. As of May 19th, Phase Two (unsealed online bidding) will begin, where all bids will be visible and participants must exceed the highest bid to continue. Things will culminate on June 12th, when the winner will be announced during a live event shared online.
As they indicate on their website, the flight will take off from the company’s launch facility (Launch Site One) located near the town of Van Horn in West Texas. Once the launcher reaches an altitude of 6.7 km (22,000 feet), the crew capsule (dubbed RSS First Step Crew Capsule) will separate from the first-stage booster and the crew will experience about ten minutes of weightlessness.
A minute later, the capsule will reach its apogee of about 100 km (62 mi) above sea level, or just past the Kármán Line. The capsule will then deploy its parachutes and conduct a soft landing, the entire experience lasting about ten minutes. According to the Terms and Conditions of the auction, “the Astronaut” (the auction winner) will be required to undergo training at a Blue Origin facility – most likely the one located in Kent, Washington, or Culberson County, Texas.
They also specify physical requirements, include a height and weight range of 5’0” and 110 lbs to 6’4” and 223 lbs. During the flight, the Astronaut will also be responsible for fastening and unfastening themselves in less than 15 seconds during and after the ~3 minutes of weightlessness. They must also be capable of withstanding the threefold increase in weight that will accompany the 2 minutes of powered ascent, and the 5.5-fold increase that will accompany descent into the atmosphere.
Last, but not least, they need to be comfortable sitting in a capsule for up to 90 minutes (40 minutes planned) without a bathroom break. There’s no indication how much the ticket could go for just yet, but this while auctioning idea is an interesting approach. This set it apart somewhat from other space tourism ventures like Virgin Galactic, which charges $250,000 a seat for future flights on its suborbital spaceplane, the VSS Unity.
Over the years, Musk has offered projections on what a one-way trip to Mars with SpaceX could cost, with estimates varying from $200,000 to $500,000. There is also the proposed lunar flyby scheduled for 2023, where a Starship will transport Japanese fashion titan, billionaire, and art collector Yusaku Maezawa and a crew of selected artists around the Moon (aka. the Dear Moon campaign).
There’s also Inspiration4, a philanthropic contest intended to raise awareness and funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It will also be the first all-civilian mission to space, with four crewmembers representing the ideals of leadership, hope, generosity, and prosperity. This contest is being funded by Jared Isaacman, billionaire and founder of Shift4 Payments, who will also be acting as the mission commander.
In other words, commercial spaceflight and space tourism have a reputation for being an exclusive playground for the super-rich (and for good reason!) But with time and investment, prices will fall and space will become much more accessible – which was the very reason why Bezos, Musk, Branson, and other commercial space leaders launched their companies in the first place.
For Blue Origin, this flight will also be the culmination of over a decade of work and more than a few setbacks. In recent years, the company has lost ground as development has stalled on its rockets while SpaceX (their chief competitor) has not only managed to secure lucrative government contracts, but have continually pushed the envelop in terms of reusability and competitively-priced launch services.
Bezos is looking to change that. The recent test flight of the New Shepard was a good first step. This upcoming flight and the auction leading up to it will be an excellent follow-through! In the meantime, interested parties should head over to Blue Origin’s website to read the Terms and Conditions and post their bids!
Further Reading: The Verge, Blue Origin