Bidding Is Open to Make the First Flight On New Shepard — If You’re Physically Fit

Bidding Is Open to Make the First Flight On New Shepard — If You’re Physically Fit

Blue Origin opened an auction today to buy the first space tourist seat on its New Shepard rocket for a 10-minute ride to space. The company, owned by Jeff Bezos, is not ready to reveal the price for seats in the future, but for this first one, the highest bid wins. Ultimately not only money, but physical fitness, will determine who gets the coveted seat.

Blue Origin’s motto is Gradatim Ferociter — Step by Step, Ferociously — and that certainly has been true of its development of the New Shepard rocket. Only now after 15 test flights over 6 years is it ready to put people aboard.

Credit: Blue Origin

The announcement today on the 60th anniversary of Alan Shepard becoming the first American in space is no accident. New Shepard is his namesake.

Like him, tourists will take a short ride above the imaginary line that separates air and space and thus become an astronaut. NASA and the Air Force drew the line at 50 miles (80 kilometers) and some still use that today. The international standards-setting organization for aviation records, Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), however, chose the Kármán line at 62 miles (100 km) as the line of demarcation. Blue Origin uses the FAI standard and its altitude goal is 65 miles (105 kilometers).

Shepard’s flight lasted 15 minutes, these will take 10.  He flew out over the Atlantic Ocean and landed in the water. These are not as sporty, taking off from and landing in West Texas near the town of Van Horn, about 2 hours East of El Paso.

The bidding process has three stages ending with a winner on June 12 who will then make the flight on July 20, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. The New Shepard capsule accommodates six passengers, but during a press conference today Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell, Director of Astronaut Sales, declined to reveal who else will be aboard.

Credit: Blue Origin

Proceeds from the auction will go to Bezos’s Club for the Future Foundation that seeks to inspire children to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  Bids over $50,000 have to go through extra steps including an identity verification process and a refundable $10,000 deposit.

Cornell joked “it’s a pretty priceless experience. Invaluable. But this is an auction. So there will be a price.”

Winning the bid will require a lot of money. Making the flight imposes even more limits that will exclude a lot of people such as those with disabilities. Age, height and weight restrictions were expected, but New Shepard is attached to a launch tower that lacks an elevator. Passengers not only will have to climb the equivalent of seven flights of stairs, but do it in less than 90 seconds, plus a host of other requirements. Participants also must be 18 years of age or older.

“The Astronaut must be able to meet each of the following functional requirements:

  1. Be within the following height and weight range: 5’0” 110 lbs. and 6’4” 223 lbs.
  2. Dress themselves in a one-piece, zip-up flight suit;
  3. Climb the New Shepard Launch Tower (equivalent to 7 flights of stairs) in under ninety (90) seconds; Walk quickly across uneven surfaces, such as a ramp or a deck with occasional steps.
  4. Be comfortable on the top deck of the launch tower and on the grated gangway to the CC [Crew Capsule]. These are about seventy (70) feet above ground level and are surrounded by balcony-like railings. The view is equivalent to the view from a seventh floor balcony.
  5. Fasten and unfasten his/her own seat harness in under fifteen (15) seconds, which is about as difficult as fastening the seat-belt in an unfamiliar car in the dark.
  6. Sit strapped into the CC’s reclined seat for forty (40) minutes, but up to ninety (90) minutes if there is a long launch delay, without getting up, and without access to a bathroom.
  7. Spend forty (40) minutes, but up to ninety (90) minutes if there is a long hold, in the CC with up to five (5) other people with the CC hatch closed;
  8. Experience up to three times your normal weight (3gs) pushing you into your seat for up to two (2) minutes during powered ascent;
  9. Hear and understand instructions in English from a ground crewmember nearby or from mission control over a radio speaker, in an environment where the noise level can reach one hundred (100) dB during the Flight;
  10. See and respond to alert lights in the CC. At each seat, there is a panel of six (6) lighted symbols to indicate, for example, when to fasten the harness or leave the CC (the lights are similar to the warning lights on a car’s dashboard; the use of corrective lenses is permitted because glasses and contact lenses both function normally in zero-g);
  11. Reliably follow instructions provided either over the radio speaker or via the alert lights;
  12. Experience up to five-and-a-half times one’s normal weight (5.5gs) pushing the Astronaut into his/her seat for a few seconds during descent into the atmosphere; and
  13. Lowering down from the CC’s hatch opening to the ground after landing, which is equivalent to lowering down to the floor from a dining-room table (note that Blue Origin expects to provide the option of using stairs within a few minutes of landing).”

Asked if they have plans to enable physically handicapped people to fly in the future, Cornell replied they are sticking to their motto: step-by-step. If they can broaden access to flights in the future “we certainly will.”

The New Shepard rocket with its multi-windowed crew capsule (foreground) and launch tower. Screengrab from NS-15 launch.

New Shepard passengers will get three days of training during which they will be accommodated at the “Astronaut Village” minutes from the launch site. In the event of a delay due to weather or other causes, Cornell said the company will deal with them “as they occur,” noting the area has “beautiful hikes” and other forms of entertainment.

Space tourism is touted as a way to enable ordinary people to experience the joy and “Overview Effect” of seeing Earth from a very different vantage point — to “democratize” space. Critics point out that only the wealthy can afford such flights now. Russia reportedly charges $25 million and up to fly to the International Space Station on its Soyuz spacecraft (NASA paid $90 million per seat).  SpaceX has two tourist flights coming up in the next 9 months, reportedly at $55 million per seat.

Those are to orbit. Bezos’s New Shepard is competing with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic in the suborbital market. Branson charges $250,000 per seat.

Cornell would not say how much future New Shepard flights will cost, but expects the auction process to help define the market. “The most active bidders are going to be very clearly on our radar” so when ticket sales open up “we will know who to contact.”

Money is not the only determinant. Even for a quick trip like this, anyone with a disability that precludes climbing stairs is out of luck. So are those who can climb that many stairs but need more than 90 seconds to do it, a group that likely includes a lot of seniors who may have the cash for the trip of a lifetime, but arthritis too.

Time will tell what the market is, but, for now, even a short 10-minute ride is restricted to the wealthy and healthy.

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