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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 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has always shied away from saying how much it will cost to fly to the edge of the final frontier on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

But today, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith hinted at a ballpark figure.

“It’s going to not be cheap,” Smith said at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF conference.

Although he stressed that the price for passengers hasn’t yet been published, he indicated that Blue Origin now has a price range in mind.

“Any new technology is never cheap, whether you’re talking about the first IBM computers or what we actually see today,” Smith said. “But it’ll be actually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to go, initially.”

Smith added that over time, “we’re going to get this down to the point where middle-class people” can afford a ticket to space.

Blue Origin is based in Kent, Wash., south of Seattle — and that’s where New Shepard’s crew capsules and boosters are being built. But the spacecraft are being tested at the company’s space facility in West Texas.

So far, 11 uncrewed test flights have been executed. The next autonomous test flight is coming up “relatively soon,” Smith said, and will have scientific payloads on board. But Smith acknowledged that the first flight to carry people probably won’t take place until next year.

Last week, Smith told CNBC that Blue Origin was being careful about making the transition to crewed flight because it wanted to make sure the launch system was sufficiently robust.

The first people to fly are likely to be Blue Origin employees, and in the past, Smith and other executives have said they won’t name a price and start taking reservations until those initial test flights with insiders have begun.

In contrast, Virgin Galactic has been making reservations and taking deposits for years, with the ticket price currently set at $250,000. Virgin Galactic is currently in the process of shifting its base of flight operations from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port to New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

This week, the Australian Financial Review quoted Virgin Galactic’s commercial director, Stephen Attenborough, as saying that customer flights would begin in 2020, and that the price tag would rise once the company starts flying the more than 600 people currently on its reservation list.

Attenborough said he hoped the price would eventually come down, as the frequency of flights goes from once or twice a month to a few times a week.

“We’ve done a huge amount of testing, but this will be the first time we take paying passengers, so we’ll give ourselves plenty of time between flights,” he said. “But we’re vertically integrated so we build our own spaceships, and we’ve got two more in the production line back in Mojave, so we’ll launch a second service at the end of next year, then a third, fourth and fifth, all at Spaceport America.”

In addition to the New Shepard suborbital space program, Blue Shepard is working on an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn, which will be assembled in Florida and launched from a Cape Canaveral pad.

A critical design review for the New Glenn rocket is due to be completed by the end of this year, in preparation for the first commercial flight in 2021, Smith said.

He said Blue Origin expects New Glenn to be an important element in the space-industry ecosystem, just as the internet has been an important element in the ecosystem that gave rise to Amazon and other online retailers. That observation echoes what Smith’s boss, Jeff Bezos, has said on more than one occasion.

“There’s literally dozens and dozens of very good and profitable ideas that just literally need the capability to actually get to space,” Smith said.

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