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Bue Origin CEO Bob Smith
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith shows a video of a BE-4 rocket engine firing during the Aerospace Futures Alliance Summit in October 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith has told Axios that just a few test flights remain before the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos starts putting people on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

“We’re still focused on getting the vehicle ready to go fly humans on it, and we’re still pushing to get that done by the end of the year,” Smith was quoted as saying in today’s report.

The first riders are likely to be test subjects selected from Blue Origin’s staff — potentially including former NASA astronauts such as Jeff Ashby and Nicholas Patrick, both of whom appear in a video touting the astronaut experience:

Over the past four years, Blue Origin has conducted 11 uncrewed New Shepard test flights, which works out to an average of two or three flights per year. At that rate, it’s debatable whether the company will stick to its end-of-the-year target for taking on living, breathing spacefliers.

Bezos, Smith and other executives have stressed that safety assurance, rather than the calendar, will determine when Blue Origin starts taking on passengers. They have also said Blue Origin won’t take reservations or even set the price of a suborbital space ride until the uncrewed test program ends.

Blue Origin is already taking in revenue from sending unaccompanied scientific payloads on trips that involve a few minutes of weightlessness, at prices ranging from $8,000 for a small student payload to more than $100,000 for a top-end powered payload locker.

British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space venture is also flying scientific payloads, and its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane has made two test flights above the 50-mile mark so far. Virgin Galactic is expected to start taking on paying passengers later this year at Spaceport America in New Mexico, although that schedule could shift to the right depending on how the test program goes.

Suborbital spaceflight is just one of Blue Origin’s lines of business. It’s gearing up to build and launch its orbital-class New Glenn rocket by 2021, and it plans to provide its BE-4 rocket engine for United Launch Alliance’s use in its next-generation Vulcan rocket in the same time frame.

Blue Origin is partnering with Maxar Technologies on a $375 million project to deliver the Power and Propulsion Element for NASA’s moon-orbiting Gateway outpost by 2022. New Glenn is among the potential launch vehicles for that payload, but Maxar says it hasn’t yet decided who’ll get the nod.

Blue Origin is also working on a lander known as Blue Moon, which could come into play in NASA’s Artemis program to send astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.

The company’s workforce is at 2,200 employees and still rising, with most of those employees working at Blue Origin’s headquarters and production facility in Kent, Wash. The site is currently in the midst of a major expansion.

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