Jeff Bezos’ space venture Blue Origin auctioned off a seat on its upcoming first crewed spaceflight on Saturday for $28 million.
The winning bidder, whose name wasn’t released, will fly to the edge of space with the Amazon founder and his brother Mark on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket scheduled to launch on July 20. The company said it will reveal the name of the auction winner in the coming weeks.
Bidding opened at $4.8 million but surpassed $20 million within the first few minutes of the auction. The auction’s proceeds will be donated to Blue Origin’s education-focused nonprofit Club for the Future, which supports kids interested in future STEM careers.
Blue Origin director of astronaut and orbital sales Ariane Cornell said during the auction webcast that New Shepard’s first passenger flight will carry four people, including Bezos, his brother, the auction winner and a fourth person to be announced later.
New Shepard, a rocket that carries a capsule to an altitude of over 340,000 feet, has flown more than a dozen successful test flights without passengers, including one in April at the company’s facility in the Texas desert. It’s designed to carry up to six people and flies autonomously — without needing a pilot. The capsule has massive windows to give passengers a view of the earth below during about three minutes in zero gravity, before returning to Earth.
Blue Origin’s system launches vertically, and both the rocket and capsule are reusable. The boosters land vertically on a concrete pad at the company’s facility in Van Horn, Texas, while the capsules land using a set of parachutes.
Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 and still owns the company, funding it through share sales of his Amazon stock.
July 20 is notable because it also marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Branson and Musk
Bezos and fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson are in a race to get to space, but each in different ways. Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic are competing to take passengers on short flights to the edge of space, a sector known as suborbital tourism, while Musk’s SpaceX is launching private passengers on further, multi-day flights, in what is known as orbital tourism.
Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have been developing rocket-powered spacecraft, but that is where the similarities end. While Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket launches vertically from the ground, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system is released mid-air and returns to Earth in a glide for a runway landing, like an aircraft.
Virgin Galactic’s system is also flown by two pilots, while Blue Origin’s launches without one. Branson’s company has also flown a test spaceflight with a passenger onboard, although the company has three spaceflight tests remaining before it begins flying commercial customers – which is planned to start in 2022.
SpaceX launches its Crew Dragon spacecraft to orbit atop its reusable Falcon 9 rocket, having sent 10 astronauts to the International Space Station on three missions to date.
In addition to the government flights, Musk’s company is planning to launch multiple private astronaut missions in the year ahead – beginning with the all-civilian Inspiration4 mission that is planned for September. SpaceX is also launching at least four private missions for Axiom Space, starting early next year.
Blue Origin’s auction may have netted $28 million, but a seat on a suborbital spacecraft is typically much less expensive. Virgin Galactic has historically sold reservations between $200,000 and $250,000 per ticket, and more recently charged the Italian Air Force about $500,000 per ticket for a training spaceflight.
Musk’s orbital missions are more costly than the suborbital flights, with NASA paying SpaceX about $55 million per seat for spaceflights to the ISS.