By Eric M. Johnson
Blue Origin, billionaire Jeff Bezos' rocket company, is poised to open up ticket sales on Wednesday for suborbital sightseeing trips on its New Shepard spacecraft, a landmark moment as US firms strive toward a new era of private commercial space travel.
Blue Origin is expected to announce details on how to purchase a seat, the timing of the first flight, and the cost for a ticket, which has been a carefully guarded secret inside Blue for years.
Reuters reported in 2018 that Blue was planning to charge passengers at least $200 000 for the ride, based on an appraisal of rival plans from billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc and other considerations, though its thinking may have changed.
Blue Origin teased last week that it would soon begin selling tickets, following years of testing and development work that has included delays.
Blue's New Shepard rocket-and-capsule combo is designed to autonomously fly six passengers more than 62 miles (100km)above Earth into suborbital space, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet before the pressurized capsule returns to earth under parachutes.
The capsule features six observation windows Blue Origin says are nearly three times as tall as those on a Boeing Co747 jetliner.
While celebrities and the uber-rich appear to be a core market for space tourist jaunts, at least initially, industry sources expect Blue to include some philanthropic component toits ticket strategy.
A college science professor and an aerospace data analyst are among a four-member crew for a launch into orbit planned later this year by Elon Musk's SpaceX, part of a charity drive billed as the first all-civilian spaceflight in history.
Virgin Galactic also aims to fly private customers in early2022, after a first flight with Branson on board later this year.
Its zero-gravity experience is anchored by its SpaceShip Twoplane, and the company has ambitious plans to offer point-to-point travel between far-flung cities at near-space altitudes.
Virgin says it will charge more than $250 000 for new reservations but has not announced final pricing. Sales will reopen following Branson's flight.
In 2018, one Blue Origin employee with first-hand knowledge of the pricing plan said the company will start selling tickets in the range of about $200 000 to $300 000. A second employee said tickets would cost a minimum of $200 000.
Blue Origin's announcement will provide Bezos, who founded Amazon.com, sorely needed momentum after Blue Origin lost out to SpaceX on a $2.9-billion contract under Nasa's high-profile program to return Americans to the moon incoming years.
However, Nasa has told SpaceX to halt development work specifically related to the moon program contract pending the outcome of protests by Blue and rival Dynetics at the US Government Accountability Office.