Blue Origin, the space-tourism startup owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, says it will start selling passenger tickets for trips into space in 2019.
The timeline came from Blue Origin senior vice president Rob Meyerson, whose comments at an Amazon Web Services event were reported by Space News. Meyerson did not say how much the tickets would cost when they go on sale.
The company also plans to conduct crewed test flights of its New Shepard rocket “soon” — meaning Bezos’s company could, at least by one metric, get a jump on rival SpaceX.
Blue Origin, at least for now, is less ambitious than Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which just nabbed a landmark military contract for its new Falcon Heavy rocket. The New Shepard is minuscule compared to the Falcon Heavy, or even the Falcon 9, and has a much lower maximum altitude than either, reaching only suborbital altitudes.
And while SpaceX’s rockets ferry satellites into orbit or supplies to the International Space Station, New Shepard is closer to a rocket-powered observation deck. It’s designed to give passengers an expansive view of the earth for about four minutes, as shown in this 2015 concept video.
Despite those big differences, a crewed test flight would be a major milestone not just for Blue Origin, but also for commercial spaceflight— and even for space exploration as a whole. NASA has not launched a crewed mission since retiring the Space Shuttle in 2011, and is working to develop a new crewed vehicle. SpaceX has said it will fly crewed test missions this year, but despite a recent string of successes, that target could shift. Boeing is also moving towards crewed space flight, but with no public timeline.
Blue Origin may beat the competition in actually conducting a crewed commercial spaceflight, but it has already missed the chance to sell the first tickets to space. The first space tourist, Dennis Tito, flew in 2001, though he paid for a seat aboard a non-commercial Russian flight. Virgin Galactic has sold at least 650 tickets for its fully commercial suborbital flights, which are now booked until at least 2021. However, it’s unclear whether Virgin will meet its previous goal of starting those flights by the end of 2018, so Blue Origin may yet come out ahead.