New Shepard liftoff
Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle lifts off on its latest test flight, NS-11, May 2. Credit: Blue Origin webcast

WASHINGTON — The chief executive of Blue Origin said Oct. 2 it was increasingly unlikely the company would start flying people on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle by the end of this year as it ensures the vehicle is safe enough.

In an on-stage interview at the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2019 conference in San Francisco, Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said the company was “very close” to crewed flights on New Shepard, but that the company may not meet the goal it set of flying people on the vehicle before the end of the year.

“I’m never going to give up pressure on the team to actually try and go get it done this year,” he said. “Is it likely? Probably not, because 2019 is rapidly coming to a close.”

Since early this year company officials as well as its billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, have said that the company expected to start carrying people, although not necessarily paying customers, on New Shepard by the end of the year. “This is the first time that I’ve ever been saying ‘this year,’” Bezos said in a February interview. “For a few years I’ve been saying ‘next year.’”

New Shepard last flew May 2 on an uncrewed mission called NS-11 from the company’s West Texas launch site. The company has provided few details in recent months about the status of the development program, while still holding onto the goal of flying people this year.

“We’ve been testing all sorts of different parameters that allow us to get ready for the first human flights, which are supposed to be coming before the end of the year,” said Erika Wagner of Blue Origin during a microgravity research symposium at Arizona State University Sept. 16. She said the company was doing “all of the i-dotting and t-crossing to make sure we’re ready for that first human flight.”

Smith, in the conference interview, said the company’s hiatus in flights was because of work to verify it was safe for people. “We’re in the position of where we’ve tapped the brakes a little bit,” he said. “Verifying that you actually have something that’s safe and ready to go is where we are. We’re just going through all of our systems and making sure that we actually have all those systems right.”

Smith said the company has at least two more uncrewed test flights of New Shepard planned before flying people. “If those flights go really well, then we may be able to actually get people up relatively soon,” he said. “If not, then we’re just going to methodically go through that and make sure that we’re only going to fly when we’re safe.”

Smith didn’t disclose when that next test flight would take place other than “relatively soon.” However, the company filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission Sept. 24 for a license to transmit telemetry from New Shepard on its 12th flight. That flight would take place no earlier than Nov. 1, according to the application.

Blue Origin also has released few details about when it will start selling tickets and for how much. “It’s going to not be cheap,” Smith said. “It’s going to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.” He didn’t though, give a specific price or state when tickets will go on sale.

He added, though, that the company will seek to reduce that price over time. “We’re going to get this down to the point where middle-class people can actually use it.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...