“We are selling the very first seat on New Shepard,” Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut sales, said in a press conference on Wednesday. “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.”
Cornell declined to reveal how much a ticket will cost to fly on New Shepard, a 60-foot-tall reusable rocket designed to shoot a gumdrop-shaped capsule with seats for six to the edge of space for a 10-minute experience in microgravity. But she suggested the auction will help gauge market interest. Asked for an approximation on where Blue Origin is planning to set the ticket price, Cornell said “we will see what the first ticket goes for via the auction.”
“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,” she said, adding there’ll be “a couple more” crewed flights later in the year.
The auction, managed by Massachusetts-based RR Auction Company, will accept sealed, anonymous bids of any price until May 19th on Blue Origin’s website. Any bids placed after that will be visible to the public (and, of course, must exceed the highest bid to advance in the auction). Then there’ll be a live online auction on June 12th at 1PM ET as a conclusion to determine the winning bidder.
Blue Origin made the announcement on the 60th anniversary of the first crewed American flight to space, introducing the space industry’s latest experimental method of selling tickets to space. So far, the space tourism market has been exclusive to the ultra-wealthy. Rival space tourism firm Virgin Galactic is charging $250,000 per seat for future flights on its suborbital spaceplane, VSS Unity. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX has given away seats for a three-day ride in its orbital Crew Dragon capsule through a philanthropic contest funded by a billionaire, who threw in $100 million of his own money and pledged to help raise $200 million more for charity.
Blue Origin’s first crewed flight will be the culmination of over a decade of rocket testing, which has been set back by delays — the company initially planned to start selling seat tickets in 2019, with a goal to fly its first crew in 2020.
According to the auction’s terms and conditions, the capsule for the debut crewed flight will be dubbed “RSS First Step Crew Capsule” and will include other astronauts picked by Blue Origin. Cornell declined to say how those other astronauts will be picked or whether they’ll be company employees. The fine print doesn’t mention the July 20th launch date as mentioned in the press release but says the flight “is expected to take place within six (6) months after the close of the Auction, and Blue Origin will keep the Astronaut updated as to changes to the date of the Flight.”
The astronauts will arrive at Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch facilities in Van Horn, Texas four days prior to liftoff and undergo three days of training. That training includes a capsule mock-up that’ll be used to practice emergency scenarios, like how to handle the craft’s fire suppression system. Space tourists won’t need to know how to manually control the capsule because the entire ride is autonomous from launch to landing.
The fine print also listed physical requirements for the winning astronaut: passengers must weigh between 110lbs and 223lbs, and should be between five feet and six feet, four inches tall. Blue Origin will see if they can open up flights to those with physical disabilities, or people who don’t meet those standards, in the future after the first few flights, Cornell said. Passengers should also be able to take forces of up to 3Gs for a couple minutes during ascent (or up to three times their weight), and five-and-a-half times their weight (or 5.5Gs) “for a few seconds during descent into the atmosphere.”
New Shepard — named after the first American to enter space, Alan Shepard — has successfully flown 15 tests since its first launch in 2015 but has never flown with a crew on board. Its most recent flight, in April, served as an “astronaut rehearsal for future customer flights.” Company executives roleplayed astronauts and ran through a bunch of pre-flight tests but left the capsule before liftoff. The New Shepard rocket that flew for that mission, NS-15, will be reused to fly the RSS First Step Crew Capsule, Cornell said.
Blue Origin’s astronaut capsule is tailored for space tourists — each reclined seat gets its own massive window that stretches over three feet tall. The seats also come with their own push-to-talk buttons so passengers can chat with ground control, as well as tablet-sized screens fixed to the border of each window that shows live flight data and video from the launch.
Near the 65-mile altitude after launching, the capsule separates from New Shepard, which begins its return to land guided by its single rocket engine. Meanwhile, the capsule spends about 10 minutes floating in microgravity where Earth’s atmosphere borders space. At that point, passengers can leave their seats and float around the capsule.
After basking in 10 minutes of weightlessness, the capsule starts to fall back to land, deploying a set of three parachutes to slow its return in the desert of Van Horn, Texas, a few miles from where New Shepard landed. Small rocket motors at the base of the capsule fire milliseconds before landing to soften the impact of touchdown. The capsule’s six seats are supported by a scissor-like mechanism that is designed to absorb the touchdown shock.
Asked during the press conference how much New Shepard interest Blue Origin has seen since teasing Wednesday’s announcement last week, Cornell said, “I can say that the website has gotten a workout in the last week,” declining to give specifics. “Obviously, we hope that is a good precursor to excitement and participation in the auction on June 12th.”