Winning Bid for Blue Origin Flight is $28 Million

Winning Bid for Blue Origin Flight is $28 Million

Someone will pay $28 million to fly on Blue Origin’s first passenger flight of the New Shepard rocket. The name of the winning bidder in Blue Origin’s auction today will not be revealed for several weeks, but whoever it is will join Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark on an 11-minute suborbital ride to space on July 20.

The $28 million will go to Bezos’ Club for the Future, a foundation dedicated to inspiring children to study science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The winning bidder must also pay an additional 6 percent commission to the R&R auction house that conducted the live auction today.

Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell said the company will be talking to others among the top bidders to offer them flights on future missions.

New Shepard already has made 15 flights from Blue Origin’s flight center in West Texas, but no one was aboard.  The rocket is named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space on a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, three weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth on April 12, 1961.  The United States did not match that feat until John Glenn’s February 20, 1962 mission. Blue Origin is building its New Glenn rocket for orbital flight.

The view from inside the New Shepard capsule. Credit: Blue Origin.

Last month, on the 60th anniversary of Shepard’s flight, Blue Origin announced it would conduct an auction for the first seat on New Shepard.  Bidding took place in stages culminating with today’s live auction. The opening bid today, based on the high bid online as of Wednesday, was $4.8 million. Over the course of about 15 minutes, it escalated to $28 million as bidders’ representatives in the room got instructions over the phone from the prospective astronauts.

The flight itself is scheduled for July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the first Apollo landing on the Moon — Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the lunar surface while Michael Collins orbited overhead.  Armstrong died in 2012 and Collins just two months ago. At 91, Aldrin is still actively engaged in the space community.

Cornell said the name of the winning bidder and the “fourth and final” crew member will be announced in a “couple of weeks.”  The New Shepard cabin can accommodate six passengers, but apparently only four will be on this one. Bezos revealed via Instagram on Monday that he will be making the trip with his brother, Mark.

Space tourism is not new. Definitions vary, but “space tourist” generally refers to individuals who spend their own money to buy a trip to space, rather than being sponsored by a company or government.

By that definition American Dennis Tito was the first space tourist, flying to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2001. Russia sent six other individuals (one of them twice) from the United States, Canada, and South Africa to the ISS through 2009 before NASA began purchasing all the extra Soyuz seats as the space shuttle program came to an end. After the ability to launch people into space from American soil was restored by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon last year, NASA no longer needed the seats and Russia has resumed selling them to tourists. Crew Dragon also is being used for tourist rides, some to the ISS and others just for a few days in orbit. Three tourist flights (two on Soyuz, one on Crew Dragon) to the ISS are scheduled between now and January 2022, plus another Crew Dragon that will not visit ISS.

Those who have the money to fly to orbit rarely disclose the price, but Tito’s 2001 flight is thought to have cost about $26 million. Almost 20 years later, NASA’s final seat on Soyuz in 2020 cost $90 million. Rumors are that a seat on a SpaceX Crew Dragon is $55 million.

That is expensive. Blue Origin and competitor Virgin Galactic, owned by Richard Branson, have been working for decades to make suborbital space tourism a reality partially because it would be less pricey and allow access to space for ordinary people. The so-called “democratization” of space envisions a future where many, not just a privileged few, can experience the “Overview Effect” of seeing Earth from the vantage point of space.

Virgin Galactic’s current price is $250,000 per person. Like Bezos, Branson is planning to make a flight on his own space vehicle this year, but a date for that SpaceShipTwo mission has not been set.  Some speculate the two are in a race to see who gets to space first, but Virgin Galactic is tamping down expectations that it is rushing to launch Branson before July 20.

Blue Origin has not set a price for New Shepard flights. This auction was a way to test the waters, but the $28 million is to be the first passenger and accompany the Bezos brothers, so may not be indicative of what others will pay. Hopefully it is an anomaly. Prices like that would ensure that only the wealthiest people get to fly, not the ordinary people for whom suborbital spaceflight theoretically was intended.

Not to mention it certainly is a lot of money for a short flight. The orbital missions are for a week or so. These suborbital flights last minutes.

New Shepard launches straight up to an altitude higher than the “Karman line” at 100 kilometers (62 miles), the imaginary line between air and space used as the international standard. The passenger capsule separates from the rocket and the two land separately after about 11 minutes. Branson’s SpaceShipTwo is dropped from an airplane (WhiteKnightTwo), fires its rocket motor to reach an altitude above 80 kilometers (50 miles), which the FAA and others use as the air/space demarcation, and glides back to Earth, a total spaceflight time of about 15 minutes.

The New Shepard rocket with its multi-windowed crew capsule (foreground) and launch tower. Screengrab from NS-15 launch, April 14, 2021.

Companies offering spaceflights are only lightly regulated by the FAA. The 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments allow the FAA to require only that customers be warned of the risks and give their “informed consent” to climb aboard. Advocates of this light hand of regulation argue that stricter rules would stifle the nascent business. The FAA’s role in regulating commercial space launches and reentries is to protect public safety, not that of passengers who willingly fly into space on whatever vehicle they choose. The legal restriction against additional FAA regulations ends in 2023 and some in Congress are looking at whether to reevaluate the situation if voluntary industry standards are not forthcoming soon.

The law refers to these commercial or private passengers as “space flight participants,” not tourists. Others call them “non-professional astronauts” to distinguish them from the NASA astronaut corps and its counterparts in other countries.

Many non-professional astronauts have flown into space over the decades on Soviet/Russian and U.S. missions. NASA referred to them as space flight participants or payload specialists during the space shuttle era. That list includes two politicians: Senator Jake Garn (R-UT) in 1985 and then-Congressman Bill Nelson (D-FL), who is now Administrator of NASA. Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe, who perished in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy, was a space flight participant. Joining her and the five NASA astronauts on that flight was Greg Jarvis, a payload specialist from Hughes Aircraft planning to conduct fluid experiments.

Alan Ladwig, who managed NASA’s Space Flight Participant program, tells the long story of citizen spaceflight in See You In Orbit?: Our Dream of Spaceflight. Ladwig was following today’s auction and tweeted that he never expected the first suborbital flight to go for $28 million.

He is philosophical about the price and what it means for the non-wealthy.  Via email, he told that “understandably, there are mixed reviews on the astonishing $28 million winning bid. Some feel it demonstrates the high interest in space tourism” while others “decry” it as the “play ground of the super rich.” In short, “the reality is it will be an expensive experience for quite some time. The notion that ticket prices would be quickly reduced for the Mass Market have always been a fantasy.”

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