On July 20th,, Blue Origin will conduct the first crewed launch of their New Shepard rocket, the reusable launch vehicle that will send small payloads and customers to space. In addition to Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark, the company announced that one of the seats was being left open for auction. On Saturday, June 12th, the company announced that the auction had closed with a winning bid of $28 million USD.
The auction kicked off on May 5th, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the first crewed space flight by an American astronaut. This was none other than Alan Shepard, the man for whom the New Shepard launch vehicle is named, who flew to space on May 5th, 1961 aboard the Freedom 7 capsule as part of the Project Mercury. The auction consisted of three phases, with sealed online bidding until May 19th, followed by unsealed online bidding until June 12th.
All told, nearly 7,600 people registered from 159 countries to bid on the seat aboard the maiden flight (dubbed RSS First Step Crew Capsule). Things then culminated in a live auction that was broadcast online (see video below), where people bid in person (and things intensified!) Prior to the live auction, the highest bid had been $4.8 million, but the offers escalated to over five times that much ($28 million) in the space of about five minutes.
As noted in a previous article, the winning bid amount will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future. Founded by Jeff Bezos in 2019, the purpose of this foundation is to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and advance space exploration. Three seats aboard the four-seat crew capsule are now spoken for, with the fourth passenger still waiting to be revealed.
“The name of the auction winner will be released in the weeks following the auction’s conclusion,” the company said in an official press release. “Then, the fourth and final crew member will be announced—stay tuned.”
This historic flight will take place on Tuesday, July 20th, and will see the New Shepard 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 RSS First Step Crew Capsule will separate from the first-stage booster and the crew will experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
This mission, and Bezos’ recent announcement that he and his brother would be passengers aboard it, has certainly shaken up the commercial space sector. If all goes as planned, Bezos will be the first billionaire to go to space using a launch vehicle built by his own company. This not only demonstrates a degree of confidence in his launch vehicles (not to mention inviting his brother along), it also puts Bezos ahead of the competition in one major respect.
So far, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has not indicated when he plans to go to space using the Starship and Super Heavy, which he hopes to use to conduct regular missions to the Moon and Mars very soon. But Virgin Galactic founder and CEO Richard Branson appears to be thinking of accelerating his own plans to go to space aboard one of his spaceplanes in response to Bezos’ announcement.
In the past, Branson said that he would be among the first passengers to fly aboard the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity when it starts making crewed flights. Prior to Bezo’s announcement, the company indicated that it planned to mount three crewed test flights starting later this year (the second involving Branson). But according to industry insider’s, Virgin Galactic is hoping to move Branson’s flight up to July 4th and beat Bezos to space by a little over two weeks.
With this inaugural flight under their belt, Blue Origin will be one huge step closer to offering regular suborbital flights using the New Shepard. There’s no indication how much a single seat will cost, but it’s definitely not going to run into the double-digit millions! Currently, Virgin Galactic chargest $250,000 per seat for future flights aboard the SpaceShipTwo fleet, and Musk has quoted a pricetag of $200,000 to $500,000 for a one-way trip to Mars.
Not exactly affordable, yet. But as flights to space become a regular occurrence, we will see prices drop to the point where more and more can afford them. One thing is clear though: in the current age of space exploration, the commercial sector is no longer following the lead of federal space agencies. Between SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and thousands of smaller companies, the goal of making space more accessible rests with private companies.
Further Reading: Blue Origin