After Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin sees a ‘robust pipeline’ of future paying spacefliers

New Shepard crew
Suborbital space crewmates Oliver Daemen, Wally Funk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Bezos face the camera in front of a Blue Origin New Shepard booster. (Jeff Bezos via Instagram)

Jeff Bezos and his crewmates are still finishing up their training for the first-ever crewed spaceflight conducted by Blue Origin, scheduled for Tuesday, but Bezos’ space venture already has customers lined up for the New Shepard suborbital spacecraft’s future flights.

“We intend to have two more flights in 2021, for a total of three flights, and many more in the future,” Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut sales, said today during a press briefing conducted at the company’s suborbital launch site in West Texas. “So we have already built a robust pipeline of customers that are interested.”

A good number of those prospects are coming from the auction that Blue Origin wrapped up last month to sell the open seat on the first flight. The winning bid came in at $28 million, but Blue Origin said that person had to defer the trip due to a scheduling conflict. So, the company turned to Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen, who had put in a lower bid but was taken on for the second flight.

Daemen took the spot, and the auction winner will fly later.

Blue Origin hasn’t revealed how much follow-up fliers have been signed up to pay, and no fare schedule has been announced. But CEO Bob Smith suggested that the first flights won’t be cheap.

“We think we had 7,500 people in the auction from over 150 countries,” he said. “Generally, there’s really high interest. So the question really gets down to what’s the price point. … Our early flights are going for a very good price. You can saw the interest during the auction was quite high. We had people well into the twenties [$20 million], all very interested. Some of that was skewed, obviously, by the auction.”

The proceeds from the auction will be funneled to space-related charitable activities by Blue Origin’s nonprofit foundation, the Club for the Future. But Blue Origin intends to turn a profit, and a successful flight on Tuesday would be hard to beat as an advertisement.

Blue Origin’s closest competitor in the suborbital spaceflight market, Virgin Galactic, flew billionaire founder Richard Branson last week ⁠— but Virgin Galactic is still in test flight mode. Commercial customers aren’t due to step on board until sometime next year. That could give Blue Origin an opening to start building up its own list of paying passengers.

The first one on the list is Daemen, who at the age of 18 is due to become the youngest person to fly into space. (That serves as a historical bookend with female aviation pioneer Wally Funk, 82, who’s set to become the world’s oldest active spaceflier thanks to Blue Origin and Bezos.)

In an Instagram video posted by Bezos, Daemen said he was excited to be part of the Blue Origin crew. “I feel like I have a responsibility because I’m the youngest in space,” he said.

Cornell said the crew — consisting of Daemen, Funk, Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark Bezos — were finishing up two days of training at Blue Origin’s Launch Site 1 in West Texas, which is outfitted with living quarters as well as a lounge, dining hall and fitness center. The training includes familiarization with procedures for getting in and out of the autonomously controlled capsule, as well as safety procedures for the flight itself. There’s a mockup of the capsule available for practice.

Liftoff is scheduled for 8 a.m. CT (6 a.m. PT) Tuesday, and Blue Origin’s streaming video coverage is set to begin 90 minutes before launch.

The crew capsule will be sent skyward by a hydrogen-fueled booster and separate several minutes after liftoff to continue past the 100-kilometer (62-mile) mark that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of space. (Virgin Galactic and the Federal Aviation Administration, in contrast, use a 50-mile standard.)

At the top of the ride, the foursome can unstrap themselves from their seats in zero-G.

“You’ll get to experience about three to four minutes of weightlessness and get to gaze out of those big, beautiful windows. Maybe do a couple of somersaults,” Cornell said. “I get the impression that Wally Funk in particular is pretty jazzed to be able to do some of those up there in zero-G, but then we will ask them to get back in their seats.”

A set of parachutes will help the capsule decelerate as it descends to the West Texas desert, while the booster autonomously lands itself on a pad located a safe distance away. The whole thing is due to take about 11 minutes — which is a few minutes shorter than NASA astronaut Alan Shepard’s landmark suborbital spaceflight back in 1961.

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