60 years since 1st American in space, tourists lining up

Sixty years after a Redstone rocket launched the Freedom 7 spacecraft carrying the first American and the second human -- 37-year-old Navy test pilot Commander Alan Shepard -- into outer space, a private spaceflight company owned by the richest man in the world opened five weeks of bidding for a seat on its inaugural manned flight, to launch from West Texas on July 20.

Named for that original NASA Mercury astronaut, Blue Origin's New Shepard has flown 15 missions from West Texas to space and back to West Texas without a human crew.

"We've been perfecting our ability to launch, land and repeat," the narrator in a video posted by Blue Origin declares.

The landing portion of this autonomous flight seems the most crucial for space tourists who haven't trained their whole lives to climb atop a rocket.

"Well, space has always been a hazardous environment," NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei said from the International Space Station, Wednesday. "There's a lot of things that we have to be prepared for."

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Vande Hei and his fellow astronauts aboard the ISS applauded Blue Origin's announcement.

"I think it's very exciting that more and more people are gonna have access to space in the coming years," astronaut Megan McArthur said. "And I think for me, it's really hard to predict what that's going to turn out to look like."

Perhaps Shepard -- 20 years after his 15-minute, history-making spaceflight -- leaving our atmosphere once again to drive golf balls with a six-iron from the surface of the moon, might one day represent something less newsworthy, if not routine.

"I think this is a great step in the right direction," astronaut Shane Kimbrough said.

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But for now, with only 569 humans in the history of man to have ever left earth's atmosphere, the concept of regular (if not yet affordable) civilian spaceflight -- in New Shepard's case, 62 miles above our planet -- sounds incredible, as it probably would have to that launch vehicle's namesake more than half a century ago.

Blue Origin plans to donate the winning bid to its foundation to cultivate the next generation of astronauts. Its competitor Virgin Galactic plans to launch its first tourist flights next year.