Amazon.com founder's next big idea

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos expects a rocket-ship complex for his aerospace venture Blue Origin to open in the south Seattle suburb of Kent early next year, city records show.

The records show that an office and warehouse the billionaire is revamping will be used to design and build spacecraft and engines, The Seattle Times reported on Sunday.

Blue Origin has released few details about the project. But a Texas newspaper editor who interviewed Bezos earlier this year said the billionaire talked about sending a spaceship into orbit that launches and lands vertically, like a rocket, and eventually building spaceships that can orbit the Earth—possibly leading to permanent colonies in space.

Bezos paid $13-million for nearly 10ha of industrial land, where city records indicate he’s spending up to $8-million to remodel an office building and warehouse. Plans also call for construction of an experimental stand where rocket engines will be tested in three-minute-long trial runs.

Test launches will be conducted in West Texas, where Bezos recently bought a 66 000ha ranch near the small town of Van Horn, about 175km south-east of El Paso.
Long-term plans for that site include a spaceport where three-person space-tourism flights could blast off once a week.

Founded in 2000, Blue Origin is one of several private rocket enterprises fuelled by the dreams and dollars of wealthy entrepreneurs.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen spent $20-million to develop SpaceShipOne, which made the first manned commercial space flight last year, winning the $10-million Ansari X Prize.

Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Music and Virgin Atlantic Airways, licensed the technology from Allen and vowed to start taking passengers into space by 2009. He recently announced a deal with the state of New Mexico to build a $225-million spaceport near White Sands Missile Range.

John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, DC, said competition among the groups will raise the odds of success.

Bezos has been the most secretive of all the rocketeers, revealing little about the technology he’s exploring. Blue Origin’s bare-bones website offers little information, and the company is not listed in phone books.

The only interview Bezos has granted about his space plans was with Larry Simpson, the editor of the weekly Van Horn Advocate.

“He told me their first spacecraft is going to carry three people up to the edge of space and back. But ultimately, his thing is space colonisation,” Simpson said in March.

In 1982, during the valedictory speech he gave at his high-school graduation, Bezos stressed the need for space colonisation.

“I’m not sure this is a hobby for him,” Logsdon said. “I think this is his next big idea.”

Blue Origin spokesperson Bruce Hicks said officials don’t want to discuss the project.

“They’re not at that stage yet ... The time will come,” Hicks told The Times.

Blue Origin did reveal some details about its plans when it filed documents with the city of Kent, which granted permits for construction and operation of the rocket-ship complex.

A 21 870-square-metre office and warehouse building in Kent is being revamped to accommodate cavernous bays, assembly areas, chemical laboratories, a workout room and a day-care centre. The 8 100-square-metre rocket-engine test stand will be surrounded by a 3,6m earthen berm.

Blue Origin, now located in a warehouse in an industrial area in south Seattle, plans to move to the Kent site in the first quarter of next year, Hicks said. The company’s work force will grow to about 70 or 100—up from 40—over the next several years, according to city records.

Other details came out in public hearings in Texas on Blue Origin’s application for launch permits from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The company is designing a spacecraft that will take off vertically like the classic sci-fi rocket, land the same way and carry three passengers. Depending on FAA approval, the earliest test flights in Texas could occur late next year, The Times reported.

Enthusiasts predict a booming business for space tourism and other business ventures, but it’s not clear how much appeal suborbital flight will hold, said Henry Hertzfeld, an expert in space law and economics at the Space Policy Institute.

Suborbital flights travel about 105km up, which would allow passengers to glimpse stars, the blackness of space and the curve of the Earth. It takes about 10 times as much power and speed to break the bonds of gravity.—Sapa-AP

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