A Blue Origin New Shepard rocket lifts off with a crew of six, including Laura Shepard Churchley, the daughter of the first American in space Alan Shepard, for whom the spacecraft is named, from Launch Site One in west Texas, U.S. December 11, 2021.
Joe Skipper | Reuters
WASHINGTON – Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin flew 14 people to space in 2021, and CEO Bob Smith on Thursday said the firm needs to build more of its New Shepard rockets to meet the demand from the space tourism market.
"I think the challenge for Blue at this point is that we're actually supply limited," Smith said, speaking at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington.
Blue Origin launched three crewed missions with its New Shepard rocket and capsule last year, as well as one cargo research flight. Smith says the company can "easily double that" number of missions in 2022.
New Shepard launches from Blue Origin's private facility in the Texas desert and reaches above 100 kilometers (or over 340,000 feet of altitude), past the 80-kilometer boundary the U.S. uses to mark the edge of space. Blue Origin currently has two operational New Shepard rocket boosters, one for research cargo flights and the other for passenger flights.
The company has not publicly disclosed pricing for seats on its New Shepard rocket. The only indication of Blue Origin's pricing structure comes from an auction for a seat on its first flight, which went for $28 million. Bezos has previously said the company has sold nearly $100 million worth of tickets, and Smith on Thursday said there were "thousands of people in the auction process."
"We can see there's very robust demand" for more New Shepard flights, Smith said.
Bezos's company, as well Elon Musk's SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, each fly spacecraft that can carry passengers, but in different ways. Virgin Galactic this week opened ticket sales to the public, which start at $450,000 each. SpaceX has more private multi-day trips to orbit scheduled, with astronaut Jared Isaacman recently announcing plans for as many as three more spaceflights with Musk's company, after leading the Inspiration4 mission last year.
CEO Smith spoke alongside Blue Origin vice president Audrey Powers at Thursday's FAA conference, with the latter emphasizing the company's work on the safety of its New Shepard rockets. The company lost leaders of the New Shepard program last year amid a broader talent exodus. Further, an essay published by Blue Origin's former head of employee communications raised safety concerns that were then reviewed by the FAA.
"I think we put together a very, very robust approach" to safety, Powers said on Thursday, adding that Blue Origin has been "able to prove that out over the course of the year, with not just one but with three successful [crewed] flights."
Smith also said he believes the tourism market is "really exciting" because it means the space industry gets "to hear other voices" who "haven't been thinking about this for their entire life, giving the example of William Shatner speaking after his flight. Shatner emotionally described his trip as "the most profound experience" in comments to Bezos minutes after landing back on Earth.