New Shepard
Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle on the pad prior to an April 29 launch. Credit: Blue Origin

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin expects to start flying people on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle “soon” and start selling tickets for commercial flights next year, a company executive said June 19.

Speaking at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit here, as the keynote of a half-day track on earth and space applications, Blue Origin Senior Vice President Rob Meyerson offered a few updates on the development of the company’s suborbital vehicle.

“We plan to start flying our first test passengers soon,” he said after showing a video of a previous New Shepard flight at the company’s West Texas test site. All of the New Shepard flights to date have been without people on board, but the company has said in the past it would fly its personnel on the vehicle in later tests.

He also offered a timetable for selling tickets. “We expect to start selling tickets in 2019,” he said, but did not disclose a price.

Blue Origin officials have offered few details about when it would start selling seats on New Shepard flights, and at what cost. The company has made clear it plans to do so, and has even produced an animated video showing people on a New Shepard suborbital flight, but has not started to actively sign up customers.

“We continue to be head down on making sure the configuration is good and stable and ready to fly,” Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said in an April interview on the status of New Shepard development. “Once we all feel confident that that’s the case, then we’ll have the conversation internally about what prices are and what that whole process looks like.”

Even the company’s billionaire owner has not disclosed details. “We don’t know the ticket price yet. We haven’t decided,” said Jeff Bezos in an on-stage interview May 25 at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles.

That approach stands in stark contrast to Virgin Galactic, the other company in the advanced stages of development of a commercial suborbital vehicle capable of carrying people. Virgin Galactic started selling tickets more than a decade ago, even while SpaceShipTwo was still in the early stages of development. The company has approximately 700 customers who have paid at least a deposit.

Blue Origin has flown its New Shepard vehicles eight times, most recently April 29. The company has not disclosed a schedule for the next flight, but Dean Kassman, head of advanced technology at Blue Origin, said in a talk later at the meeting that the next flight would be in “the summer timeframe.”

That total includes the first New Shepard launch in April 2015, which featured a successful takeoff of the vehicle and separation of the crew capsule, which landed under parachutes. However, a hydraulics problem prevented the vehicle’s propulsion module from making a powered landing, resulting in the loss of the module. Meyerson, in his keynote, called that flight “a perfect expendable launch.”

Meyerson, the longtime president of Blue Origin, moved into his current position earlier this year to lead a new advanced development programs business within the company, working on concepts like the Blue Moon lunar lander. “We believe that setting up colonies on the moon is the next logical step towards exploring Mars and beyond,” he said.

What the company will pursue after Blue Moon “is still to be determined,” he said. Blue Origin is currently hiring technologists to develop a long-range road map for the company and work on research and technology projects that support the company’s long-term vision.

“Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and we accept there are many ways to get there,” he said. “The task of defining the path forward is what we’re doing now.”

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...