Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos discusses the status of the company's New Shepard suborbital vehicle April 5 at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Behind Bezos are a model of the New Shepard crew capsule and the propulsion module that flew five suborbital flights. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

COLORADO SPRINGS — Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos said April 5 that his company was still hoping to start flying people on suborbital space tourism flights by the end of next year, while suggesting crewed test flights will not start this year as previously planned.

Bezos, speaking in front of the company’s exhibit at the 33rd Space Symposium here that features the New Shepard propulsion module that flew five suborbital spaceflights in 2015 and 2016, backed away from earlier statements that called for flying people on test flights later this year.

“We’re going to go through the test program, and we’ll put humans on it when we’re happy,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be 2017 at this point. It could be.”

Even if Blue Origin doesn’t start crewed test flights this year, he believed the vehicle could be ready for commercial flights next year. “I still think we could do commercial paying passengers in 2018,” he said.

Bezos emphasized several times in a question-and-answer session that the company was not following a rigid schedule for the development of New Shepard. “I always remind the team that we’re not racing. This vehicle is going to carry humans. We’re going to make it as safe as we can make it,” he said. “We’re not going to take any shortcuts. We’re going to put humans on this vehicle when we’re ready and not a second sooner.”

Any delay in the development of New Shepard, he said, is not based on the company’s work on the BE-4 engine for both United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan engine and Blue Origin’s own New Glenn orbital launch vehicle. “We’re really not constrained by our BE-4 activities. Both are fully staffed,” he said.

Blue Origin used the conference to show off a model of the interior of the New Shepard’s crew capsule. It features six seats, fixed in a horizontal position. People flying on the vehicle will have access to large windows as well as computer monitors that display information on the status of the flight. They will also be able to float around the cabin during the approximately four minutes of weightlessness on a typical flight.

Blue Origin, though, has not started selling tickets for those flights. “We’ll probably start taking down payments and selling tickets when we’re closer to commercial operations,” Bezos said. “We have a whole test program ahead of us.”

Blue Origin has also not yet set a ticket price for those flights. “We’re working on that,” he said. “We still have time. It’s not an urgent thing to figure out because we’re not ready to sell tickets anyway.”

New Shepard cabin
Ariane Cornell, head of astronaut strategy and sales at Blue Origin, discusses the features of the New Shepard crew capsule inside a full-sized model of the capsule on display at the 33rd Space Symposium. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Bezos suggested that New Shepard, in addition to serving as a suborbital vehicle for tourism and research, could also be converted into a small satellite launch vehicle. “I’m thinking it might be interesting to build a small second stage for this New Shepard booster because we could use it to put smallsats into orbit,” he said. “It would be perfectly capable of being a first stage for a small orbital vehicle.”

He said such a system would not necessarily be a low-cost vehicle on a price-per-kilogram basis. “It does have certain advantages if you’re doing, say, replacement of LEO constellation satellites,” he said.

Blue Origin’s focus for satellite launch is the far larger New Glenn vehicle that the company announced last September and provided additional details about in March. That vehicle’s first stage is also designed to be reusable.

“All of the learnings that we’re getting from New Shepard are going into our orbital vehicle, New Glenn,” he said. “We already learned so much just by designing and building and flying New Shepard, and all of those learnings are already incorporated into our New Glenn design.”

Blue Origin expects to begin New Glenn flights in 2020, and will initially focus on launching satellites. “Ultimately, most of our flights will be taking people up into space,” he said. “That is going to take a while.”

Bezos didn’t state how much of his personal wealth, estimated to be more than $75 billion thanks to his stake in retailer, he has invested into Blue Origin to date. However, he did state he expected New Glenn to cost $2.5 billion to develop.

“My business model right now for Blue Origin is that I sell about $1 billion a year of Amazon stock and I use it to invest in Blue Origin,” he said. “It’s very important that Blue Origin stand on its own feet and be a profitable, sustainable enterprise. That’s how real progress gets made.”

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...