The first customer to fly on Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital spacecraft will pay at least $2.6 million for the privilege.
Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is auctioning off one of New Shepard's six seats for the vehicle's first-ever crewed flight, which is scheduled to lift off on July 20. The auction began on May 5 with sealed online bidding and moved to the unsealed phase on Wednesday (May 19).
That means we can now see how much the seat is going for. As you probably surmised, it's not chump change; the leading bid as of Wednesday afternoon, as shown on the Blue Origin website, is $2.6 million.
And that figure will almost certainly go up. The "unsealed online bidding" phase runs through June 10, and the event concludes with a live auction on June 12.
The winning bid will not further line the pockets of Bezos, who's already the richest person in the world. Rather, the money "will be donated to Blue Origin's foundation, Club for the Future, to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] and help invent the future of life in space," Blue Origin representatives wrote in a description of the auction on the company's website.
New Shepard consists of a rocket and a capsule, both of which are fully reusable. The rocket returns to Earth for a vertical, powered touchdown, and the capsule lands softly under parachutes. This has happened many times already; New Shepard has flown 15 uncrewed test flights to suborbital space from Blue Origin's West Texas site. The most recent flight launched on April 14 in an "astronaut rehearsal" mission.
The first crewed flight will come on July 20, if all goes according to plan. That date was doubtless chosen advisedly; it's the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. And Blue Origin announced the target launch date and the auction on May 5, the 60th anniversary of the first American crewed spaceflight, which sent NASA astronaut Alan Shepard on a 15-minute suborbital jaunt. (New Shepard is named after the astronaut and his mission.)
Blue Origin has not yet announced how much it will normally charge for seats aboard New Shepard, though it's a safe bet it'll be less than $2.6 million. The most recently stated ticket price for the company's chief rival in the suborbital space tourism industry, Virgin Galactic, was $250,000.
Virgin Galactic has not yet flown any paying customers, but it does have two crewed spaceflights under its belt — test missions that launched in December 2018 and February 2019. (Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo space plane is piloted, whereas New Shepard is designed to fly autonomously.)
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.