Blue Origin will launch its first crewed flight Tuesday aboard a New Shepard rocket, just over a week after Virgin Galactic (SPCE) sent founder Richard Branson into space.
Coverage will start at 7:30 a.m. ET with the launch from its west Texas site scheduled for 9 a.m. ET.
While Branson can claim he got to space before Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who will be on next week’s flight, Blue Origin could still set major milestones.
On Thursday, the company said Oliver Daemen will join the crew of the New Shepard rocket as the first paying customer for the company.
That will mark the beginning of commercial operations for the program, according to Blue Origin, though it’s unclear when regular service will begin. On Monday, the FAA granted Blue Origin a license modification to fly humans, but that is only valid through August.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic predicts it will start commercial service in early 2022. And while the July 11 flight with Branson was Virgin Galactic’s first with a full crew, none of the passengers were paying customers.
Blue Origin’s launch will also mark the world’s first unpiloted suborbital flight with an all-civilian crew, according to Reuters. Blue Origin has flown 15 uncrewed test flights.
And Blue Origin will carry the youngest and oldest astronauts ever. Daemen, an 18-year-old physics student, joined the mission after the winner of Blue Origin’s $28 million auction asked to be moved to a later mission due to scheduling conflicts.
He is the son of Joes Daemen, a hedge fund manager at Somerset Capital Partners. The elder Daemen placed the second-highest bid, according to Ars Technica’s Eric Berger.
Blue Origin also will take 82-year-old Wally Funk, a “Mercury 13” pilot, on the flight. She has waited 60 years to get to space. Funk was part of the Women in Space Program, nicknamed “Mercury 13,” a privately funded venture in the 1960s that was canceled before any of the female astronauts could reach space.
Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon (AMZN), and his brother round out the rest of the crew.
Space Race: Blue Origin Vs. Virgin Galactic
The real winner of the space race is who will becomes the “it” space tourism provider, said Andrew Chanin, CEO of ProcureAM, which launched the Procure Space ETF (UFO).
If ticket prices end up being roughly the same, the deciding factors could be the cabin experience, more time spent weightless, a higher altitude, more specialized training and more upscale lodging and family experience on the ground, he added.
“And to the extent that one is a clear winner, that could absolutely harm the other’s potential for business,” Chanin said. “That said, we have no clue what Virgin Galactic will reopen their ticket window price at. And we have no idea what Blue Origin will be selling tickets for.”
Virgin Galactic previously put ticket prices at $250,000, but Wall Street expects that to go up, perhaps to $500,000. But Branson has said that he would like to see prices eventually come down to $40,000, which could start a fare war.
Chanin said that Blue Origin is also aiming to be a much more diversified company than Virgin Galactic.
In addition to space tourism, Virgin Galactic has some astronaut training deals with NASA and a research flight with the Italian Air Force.
But Blue Origin’s ambitions span further into space. It is developing a deep-space rocket, lunar lander, and a constellation of satellites for internet service.
“We want to see as many successful space companies as we can out there,” he said. “In the event that they (Blue Origin) are not successful or not immediately successful, it’s not necessarily as potentially harmful for the long-term development of the company.”
Blue Origin and Virgin also face competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Musk founded SpaceX with dreams of colonizing Mars and creating a spacefaring society.
SpaceX’s rockets routinely carries payloads into space for NASA and the Pentagon, as well as other governments and companies.
And SpaceX is now sending astronauts to the space station on regular trips via the Crew Dragon capsule. SpaceX is also developing the Starship for deep-space missions and space tourism as well as point-to-point travel on Earth.
Follow Gillian Rich on Twitter for space news and more.
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