Private space company Blue Origin announced that it plans to sell suborbital spaceflight tickets to aspiring space tourists starting next year. No price was given, but the company said it expects to conduct the first passenger tests of the New Shepard launch system "soon".
A test of the New Shepard launch vehicle. Image: Blue Origin
As Jeff Foust reports in SpaceNews, Blue Origin Senior Vice President Rob Meyerson made the announcement during his keynote address at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit, held earlier this week in Washington DC.
"We plan to start flying our first test passengers soon," he told the audience, adding that, "We expect to start selling tickets in 2019."
No price was given for a ride aboard the New Shepard reusable launch system, but it likely won't come cheap. Estimates range from $US50,000 ($67,582) to $US250,000 ($337,910) per seat.
Those who can afford it would be in for a treat. The New Shepard capsule accommodates six astronauts, and it has a reasonably spacious 50m2 interior - a space that's 10 times larger than NASA's Mercury capsule. The New Shepard reusable rocket is driven by a single BE-3 engine, which provides around 50,000kg of thrust.
Once the capsule crosses the Kármán line - the boundary that separates Earth's atmosphere from space (around 100km above Earth) - passengers will be able to undo their seat belts and experience weightlessness. The mission ends with a parachute-assisted descent and a soft landing in the Texas desert.
Back in April, Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said the company is in the process of making sure the craft is "good and stable and ready to fly", after which time the team will "have the conversation internally about what prices are and what that whole process looks like".
Image: Blue Origin
Now, it's completely possible that the Jeff Bezos-founded company will start selling tickets for suborbital flights next year, but that's no guarantee the flights will happen any time soon.
Take Virgin Galactic, for example, which started collecting deposits for tickets more than a decade ago, well before SpaceShipTwo was anywhere near being ready to tickle the edges of space; the Richard Branson-led company managed to gather about $US66,428,500 ($89,787,351) in deposits, selling tickets at $US200,000 ($270,328) a pop.
It should also be said that aspiring space tourism companies are notorious for overselling expected delivery dates. Like SpaceX, which postponed its plan to send a pair of space tourists, who had also paid a deposit, around the Moon and back later this year.
Critically, Blue Origin has yet to perform a test of the New Shepard system with human occupants. To date, the company has conducted eight tests, the most recent happening on April 29. This last test saw a successful takeoff, crew capsule separation, and soft landing with parachutes. But the vehicle's propulsion module was lost due to a hydraulics problem.
No date has been given for the next test flight, but Blue Origin is expected to conduct one later this winter. The company would also like to start testing the launch system with human passengers later this year.