Blue Origin team members ready the New Shepard Crew Capsule during assembly in Kent, Washington

Blue Origin pledges to fly humans to space in 2018

Blue Origin, the space flight company run by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has announced it intends to take on its first passengers in 2018.

The announcement was made by Bezos himself and marks the first time that Blue Origin has set a target date for the beginning of commercial space flight.

"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.

The company expects to build six New Shepard vehicles, which are designed to autonomously fly six passengers more than 100km 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.

In January, a second controlled landing of a New Shepard rocket was hailed as a major step towards rocket reusability, which is expected to considerably slash the cost of space travel.

Rival company SpaceX is also trying to perfect reusable rockets for the same reason and has so far successfully landed a rocket on a ground-based pad after it had been sent on a mission.

However, repeated attempts to land their rockets on a barge in the ocean, including last Friday, have all failed.

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

Galactic is selling tickets to fly on its six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo for $250,000 (£176,000). 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.

Bezos also said recently that his company is years ahead of competitor Aerojet Rocketdyne in developing a rocket engine to replace now-banned Russian engines used on rockets launching US military missions.

Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine under development would be used by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing, to launch military satellites.

"I'm very confident," Bezos said. "They have selected our engine. They are designing the Vulcan [rocket] around our engine. It's a big course change for them to switch to their backup engine."

The BE-4 engine has been in development for four years and is scheduled to test-fire a full-size engine by December.

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