It’s one small step for a lucky auction winner, but one giant leap for the space industry.
On Saturday, Blue Origin announced that the first seat on its first crewed flight sold for a staggering $28 million. The as-yet-unnamed auction winner will fly alongside the firm’s founder Jeff Bezos, his brother, and one final unnamed crew member on the New Shepard rocket’s first human flight on July 20.
The auction represents a major step in the emergent new space race, which has seen enthusiastic billionaires duke it out to increase humanity’s presence in space. Blue Origin is competing with the likes of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic to launch more ordinary (albeit wealthy) people, a stark contrast to the sixties-era race that focused on training up elite astronauts for government missions.
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Blue Origin’s auction was announced on May 5. The bidding was initially private, moving to a public auction on May 19. The auction finished on June 12. Over the course of the event, almost 7,600 people registered from 159 countries.
The money will be donated to Blue Origin’s Club for the Future, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring children to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and medicine.
Blue Origin’s crewed flight: what’s the plan?
The lucky winner will join the others in a flight lasting around 10 minutes. It will lift off from the firm’s West Texas facility. The capsule on top of the rocket will travel past the Kármán line, located around 62 miles above the Earth’s surface and considered by many to be the boundary of space. The capsule and rocket will both return to Earth, ready for use on another mission.
Blue Origin has flown 15 uncrewed test flights with its New Shepard rocket. Watch the company’s explainer of its progress here:
Although SpaceX has launched three crewed missions to the International Space Station since May 2020, CEO Elon Musk has yet to go to space himself. Bezos may beat Musk in that feat, but reports earlier this month suggested that Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is aiming to fly in his firm’s ship over the July 4 weekend.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are both aiming for suborbital flights, though. SpaceX is planning its first all-civilian flight, Inspiration4, to reach low-Earth orbit when the mission launches on September 15.
The Inverse analysis — Perhaps the most eye-popping detail from the auction is the price. $28 million is extortionate, a figure likely inflated by the historic nature of the launch and the fact that the proceeds go to charity.
To put it into perspective, Reuters reported in 2018 that the firm plans to charge $200,000 to $300,000 for early spaceflight tickets. If that figure holds true for subsequent missions, it means the auction winner paid around 100 times more for their ticket.
It would be a similar price to other spaceflight firms. For the earliest tickets, Virgin Galactic charged $250,000. For the far future, SpaceX aims to charge around $200,000 for flights to its Mars city — although the firm isn’t expected to establish a city until around 2050.
It’s also not far off the price of a trip much further into space. In 2019, NASA estimated that a private trip to the International Space Station would cost around $50 million per seat. The agency would charge around $35,000 per night for food and other basic support. The agency was paying around $80 million for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets to the ISS until 2020.
For a suborbital flight, it’s an extraordinary price — but then, by definition, Blue Origin will only have one “first crewed flight.”
UPDATE: On a Jimmy Kimmel Live! interview, movie star Tom Hanks claimed he was offered the seat on the second flight that eventually went to Star Trek star William Shatner. Hanks says he balked at the “$28 million” price tag, which suggests that flight two was as expensive as flight one.
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