Blue Origin aims to take passengers on suborbital space flights in 2018

Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin expects to begin crewed test flights of its reusable suborbital New Shepard vehicle next year and begin flying paying passengers in 2018.

Crewed test flights of autonomous New Shepard space vehicle start in 2017

Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin expects to begin crewed test flights of its reusable suborbital New Shepard vehicle next year and begin flying paying passengers in 2018, Bezos told reporters on Tuesday.

Bezos' remarks, made during the first ever media tour of the Blue Origin manufacturing facility, marked the first time the billionaire founder of had put a target date on the start of the commercial space flights Blue Origin is 

"We'll probably fly test pilots in 2017, and if we're successful then I'd imagine putting paying astronauts on in 2018," Bezos said at the sprawling plant south of Seattle.

Amazon founder and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announces plans to build a rocket manufacturing plant and launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida in September 2015. Bezos said on March 8, 2016 that Blue Origin expects to begin crewed test flights of its reusable suborbital New Shepard vehicle next year and begin flying paying passengers in 2018. (Mike Brown/Space Florida)

The company expects to build six New Shepard vehicles, which are designed to autonomously fly six passengers to more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) above Earth, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the planet set against the blackness of space.

Blue Origin's first reusable rocket was lost in a test flight in April 2015, though the capsule parachuted safely back 
to the ground
. A second ship has made two test flights, and Blue Origin is in the process of assembling its next two vehicles, which, for the first time, include windows for paying passengers.

No price yet

Blue Origin has not yet settled on a price for rides, but Bezos said it will be competitive with what other companies, such as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, are charging for similar flights.

Blue Origin's lobby features a replica of the Earth. The private space company opened its doors to the media for the first time on Tuesday. (Donna Blankinship/Associated Press)

Galactic is selling tickets to fly on its six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo for $334,000 ($250,000 US). The company last month unveiled its second spaceship and expects to begin test flights soon. The first SpaceShipTwo was lost during a fatal test flight in October 2014.

Privately owned XCOR Aerospace, which is developing a two-person space plane called Lynx, is charging about $134,000 ($100,000 US) for one person to fly alongside a pilot.

Space memorabilia, including a model of the Enterprise from Star Trek, foreground, and a Jules Vern-type space vessel, are seen in the lobby of Blue Origin's headquarters. (Donna Blankinship/Associated Press)

Bezos said he has invested more than $669 million ($500 million US) in Blue Origin, which is on track to double its staff to about 1,200 within the next year. He said that he would continue to foot the company's bills "for as long as necessary."

Bezos expects Blue Origin to become profitable at some point. "I'm optimistic it will be a healthy business," Bezos 

An artist's rendition of Blue Origin's rocket engine is hung in the lobby. (Donna Blankinship/Associated Press)

Blue Origin also is working on rocket engines for United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed-Martin and 
Boeing, and for Orbital ATK.

"It's very gratifying that the world's premier launch companies are choosing our engines," Bezos said. 

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, left, stands with president Rob Meyerson in front of a copper exhaust nozzle to be used on a space ship engine on the company's research and production floor, in Kent, Wash. (Donna Blankinship/Associated Press)