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Blue Origin to Launch First Crewed Flight from West Texas This Summer

The company will auction off one seat on its first space flight with passengers on board. The launch is set for July 20 from the company’s facility north of Van Horn, Texas.

By Travis Bubenik

Blue Origin, the private space company owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, announced Wednesday that it plans to launch its first flight with passengers on board this summer from West Texas.

The flight is set to blast off on July 20 from the company’s sprawling launch facility north of Van Horn, Texas.

The announcement is a notable milestone in Blue Origin’s long-held plan to give tourists a glimpse of the cosmos through routine flights aboard the company’s reusable rocket, dubbed "New Shepard.”

The company has been conducting rocket tests from its Culberson County site for years, most recently with an “astronaut rehearsal” test flight in April, which involved Blue Origin employees carrying out various operational tests on the ground but not actually taking off aboard the rocket.

“Astronauts” is how the company refers to its potential customers, who would pay for a roughly 10-minute flight into space from the West Texas launch site.

Blue Origin also announced it will auction off one seat on the inaugural flight to benefit the company’s “Club for the Future” foundation, which encourages kids to pursue science and technology careers.

“We will have other people as part of the crew,” Ariane Cornell, the company’s director of astronaut sales, told reporters during a virtual briefing. “This is the only seat that is open for purchase, which is, again, the very first seat that’s open to the public.”

New Shepard’s crew capsule is designed to hold up to six people and features a series of wide windows that will offer space tourists what the company has described as “life-changing views of Earth.”

Blue Origin has so far declined to provide an estimate for how much future trips to space will cost, but Cornell suggested the company would look to the results of the first auction for guidance.

“We will see what the first ticket goes for via the auction,” she said. “We don’t have details on the prices for future seats.”

People hoping to grab a seat on New Shepard, whether through the first auction or future flights, will have to pass certain health and security screenings and go through a series of training exercises.

The auction for a seat on the July 20 flight opened Wednesday with private online bidding and will continue through May 19. The auction will open up to the public later in May and on June 12, the company will conclude bidding with a live auction.

During Wednesday’s press briefing, Cornell said Blue Origin would release more details closer to the July flight about how West Texans can watch the launch.

“I have to commend and thank the local Van Horn community,” she said. “I think of Van Horn as home away from home, so a big shout out to them.”

Blue Origin’s work in West Texas has not been entirely without controversy. During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, some of the company’s own employees raised concerns about the company seeking to bypass Texas quarantine rules in order to continue traveling back and forth from the Van Horn area to major cities for a planned test launch. The company ultimately decided to delay that launch until September, as the Verge reported.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.