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Blue Origin will send first customer to space in just a few months

The rocket company started by Jeff Bezos will send an auction winner beyond Earth aboard its New Shepard spacecraft very soon.

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New Shepard takes flight.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin has set a date to send civilians to space aboard its New Shepard spacecraft, and it's put the first seat on the flight up for bids.

The company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos announced Wednesday that it's targeting July 20 for its first crewed flight. One of the seats on the flight has been put up for auction, with the proceeds benefiting Blue Origin's educational foundation, Club For The Future.

The trip will see the astronauts blast off from Blue Origin's west Texas launch facility inside a six-seat passenger capsule atop the New Shepard booster. After separating from the rocket, the crew will travel beyond the edge of space to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and an epic view before returning for a parachute-assisted soft landing back on Earth. Meanwhile, the booster will make an autonomous powered landing not far from where it launched.

Opening bids for the seat on the first crewed flight are being taken online at the Blue Origin website. The three-phase auction will conclude with a live online auction on June 12.

So far, no humans have actually flown on New Shepard. The closest anyone has come is strapping into the capsule seats for a communications check but then exiting before actual blast-off of the most recent test flight.

The announcement ends years of anticipation and comes over half a decade after New Shepard pulled off the first vertical rocket landing as part of the new commercial space race of the 21st century. During the past five years, however, it would seem that adversary SpaceX has run away with the competition, or certainly with most media attention.

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Elon Musk's company has conducted dozens of launches and landings of much bigger rockets performing more complicated missions and already sent astronauts to orbit. Meanwhile, Blue Origin has moved at a seemingly slower pace, conducting a few New Shepard tests per year while also moving ahead with plans for a bigger New Glenn rocket to compete more directly with the likes of SpaceX.

To be fair, sending paying customers on a joyride to space as tourists is very different from launching satellites or working as a contractor for NASA to transport highly trained astronauts. SpaceX has lost satellites in accidents and been able to carry on rather easily. But if Blue Origin were to lose a passenger, it could be an entirely different matter.

So all of the main companies looking to send wealthy tourists to space -- Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic as well as SpaceX -- have faced slow progress to make sure it's done right with minimal risk.

Virgin Galactic lost a pilot in one accident that set its development back, but it's still hoping to begin sending customers to space aboard its custom spaceplanes in the coming months. SpaceX also plans to launch civilians to space later this year. But if the plan announced Tuesday pans out, Blue Origin may be the first of the three to send an actual paying customer on the trip of a lifetime.

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