An open spot on the first-ever crew to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship was auctioned off today for $28 million, which is millions more than the International Space Station’s first paying tourist reportedly paid 20 years ago.
It took about eight minutes for RR Auction to wind up the bidding at its Boston headquarters. That’s a couple of minutes less than the expected duration of the New Shepard mission, set for July 20 at Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas. And it’s a few minutes more than the yet-to-be-identified winner is expected to spend in zero-G during the flight.
The winner, currently known only as Bidder No. 107, will experience about three minutes of weightlessness and a big-picture view of the curving Earth below the black sky of space. It’ll be one of the priciest per-minute trips in history. But it’ll also go down in the space history books, in part because Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, will be one of the crewmates.
It didn’t take long for speculation about the winner’s identity to begin — with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Bezos’ biggest billionaire space rival, thrown into the mix:
Rumor is Elon is winning bid, and gave seat to Lucky Swisher (mom of @karaswisher).
Next level re the feud. Stay tuned. https://t.co/JlVsuvOOSJ
— Scott Galloway (@profgalloway) June 12, 2021
Blue Origin has put the New Shepard suborbital launch system through 15 uncrewed tests, but July’s flight will be the first to put people on board for an actual launch. The “first-to-fly” distinction, plus the chance to spend some time with America’s richest individual, undoubtedly added to the value proposition.
Bidding on the open seat began last month, and before today, the high bid stood at $4.8 million. Once RR Auction’s Steve Little kicked off the live bidding, the price quickly escalated — at times, in increments of $1 million.
“The more you pay for it, the more you enjoy it,” Little said during a rare lull in the bidding. He said more than 20 qualified buyers signed up for the live auction. RR Auction will tack a 6% buyers’ commission onto the $28 million purchase price.
Blue Origin’s director of astronaut strategy and sales, Ariane Cornell, said during today’s webcast that the winner’s identity won’t be revealed until all the paperwork is signed, probably within the next couple of weeks.
Proceeds from the sale will be donated to the Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s nonprofit educational foundation. “With $28 million, we’re going to inspire a lot of kids,” Cornell said.
She said nearly 7,600 people from 159 countries registered to participate in the online auction over the course of its five-week run.
“To say that we are humbled is an incredible understatement,” Cornell said.
The final price is more than the roughly $20 million that millionaire investor Dennis Tito is said to have paid for the first tourist trip to the International Space Station in 2001. (In inflation-adjusted terms, Tito still paid more.) But it’s less than the $55 million or so that private astronauts are thought to be currently paying for trips to the space station in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.
Bezos announced on Monday that he and his brother, Mark Bezos, would be on next month’s flight, which is timed to coincide with the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. The auction winner would turn the crew into a trio, but Cornell said there’ll actually be a quartet on board. “The fourth and final crew member will also be announced soon, so stay tuned for that,” she said.
The four spacefliers will require only a couple of days of training in advance of what’s expected to be a roughly 10-minute up-and-down flight at Blue Origin’s West Texas facility. They’ll stay at an “astronaut village” that Blue Origin has built at Launch Site One, with living quarters that have been named after Mercury astronauts and female aviation pioneers.
Blue Origin says its fliers will ride the company’s autonomously piloted, fully reusable New Shepard spaceship above the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude that serves as the currently accepted international boundary of outer space, also known as the Karman Line.
In contrast, Virgin Galactic, the suborbital space travel venture founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, is targeting the 50-mile altitude that the Federal Aviation Administration has established as the standard for awarding commercial astronaut wings. After more than a decade of development, Virgin Galactic seems to be on track to begin flying customers at New Mexico’s Spaceport America by next year.
About 600 people have signed up for Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceflights, paying reserved fares that are in the range of $250,000. That fare is certain to go up when Virgin Galactic resumes sales, particularly in light of the results of today’s auction.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, is taking a cagey approach to spaceflight sales. It has never publicly announced a ticket price, although CEO Bob Smith said in 2019 that he expected the price to amount to “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Will the price now be dramatically higher than that? Apparently, it depends on what the market will bear. In any case, Cornell said today’s auction will set the tone for filling up the flights that follow next month’s milestone launch.
“We are going to contact the most competitive bidders from today to offer them access to those early flights,” she said.