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Space Race 2: Bezos and life beyond Amazon

By IRENE MONA KLOTZ   |   Jan. 18, 2005 at 11:25 AM   |   Comments

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Jan. 18 (UPI) -- For years, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has been laboring in secret at his Seattle headquarters on a space-related project known only as Blue Origin.

While his fellow billionaire brethren basked in the commercial space limelight -- Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen sponsored the Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne program; PayPal creator Elon Musk sold cut-rate rides aboard his Falcon 1 rocket; video gamer John Carmack created spunky Armadillo Aerospace -- Bezos kept quiet about his own transition from cyberspace to outer space.

Last week, however, Bezos revealed a small part of his vision for Blue Origin. In an interview with the Van Horn Advocate, a weekly newspaper in Van Horn, Texas, Bezos explained why he had purchased 165,000 acres north of town.

Evidently, a section of Corn Ranch, as the property is known, will be transformed into a Blue Origin rocket-development center and spaceport to support the company's planned sub-orbital spaceships.

"Texas has been a longstanding leader in the aerospace industry and we are very excited about the possibility of locating here," Bezos told the newspaper. "Blue Origin's facilities could help make West Texas a center for private, space-related activities."

Nostalgia drove Bezos' decision to locate his space center in rural Texas. The 41-year-old entrepreneur, whom Forbes magazine pegs as the 82nd richest person in the world -- with a fortune estimated at $5.1 billion -- spent his summers as a child on his grandfather's ranch in southern Texas. The lessons he learned -- perseverance and self-reliance -- were key to his development, Bezos told the paper.

"I hope to give my family the same experiences on my West Texas ranch now," he said in the interview.

Initially, Bezos would build an engine-test stand, fuel- and water-storage tanks and a general-purpose building at the Corn Ranch site. Later, he would add vehicle-test facilities. Eventually, he said he wants to build a spaceport for launching sub-orbital passenger rockets that take off and land vertically.

Like the vehicles developed to compete for the X Prize, Blue Origin's vessel is being designed to carry three people to the edge of space. Bezos told the paper that flights could be begin in six or seven years.

Blue Origin program manager Rob Meyerson joined Bezos in Van Horn last week to tell the newspaper of its plans.

"While it was obvious from their expression that this project is complex, time consuming and challenging, they made it clear that the project is going to move ahead very deliberately while being well planned and carefully thought out," the paper wrote.

Bezos noted that no tax dollars will be used to develop Corn Ranch's spaceport, although he has contacted the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial space operations in the United States, about Blue Origin's plans.

"Blue Origin's decision to locate a private aerospace testing and operations center in Van Horn holds great promise for our state's expansion in the field of commercialized space fight," Texas Gov. Rick Perry told the paper. "The continued development of spaceports is important to the statewide strategic plan to grow and promote aerospace industry clusters in Texas."

Blue Origin is not the only startup aerospace company with a toehold in Texas. About 500 miles northeast of Van Horn is the small town of Mesquite, just outside Dallas, where Armadillo Aerospace is developing a passenger sub-orbital rocket called the Black Armadillo. Carmack, creator of best-selling video games Doom and Quake, said Armadillo is about to resume testing following the loss of its prototype vehicle in August.

Armadillo was among two-dozen teams competing for the $10-million X Prize, which was promised to the first group that built and flew a privately funded, three-passenger sub-orbital spaceship twice within two weeks. SpaceShipOne, built by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., with backing from Microsoft's Allen, clinched the prize last October.

The purpose of the race, however, was to kick-start a private passenger-spaceflight industry. Following the success of SpaceShipOne, Rutan and Allen picked up a new partner for a commercial suborbital vehicle: Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson. The new company, Virgin Galactic, initially plans to launch from Scaled Composites' home base at the Mojave Airport.

Another spaceport for sub-orbital launchers is being developed in Las Cruces, N.M., where the foundation that ran the X Prize plans to host an annual 10-day event to showcase the budding sub-orbital spaceliners.

The New Mexico site is controversial, however. For starters, non-U.S. firms may have problems arranging for their vehicles to fly over U.S. soil, although the recently unveiled revision to the official U.S. Space Transportation Policy may help ease the bureaucracy.

Another issue already brewing is competition between Mojave and New Mexico as launch sites, so the addition of a Texas space complex will add another twist to the mix.

--

Space Race 2 is a weekly series exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight, by Irene Klotz, who covers aerospace for UPI Science News. Email sciencemail@upi.com

© 2005 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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