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Amazon CEO gives us peek into space plans
Seattle Times staff reporter
The editor of the Van Horn Advocate knew something was afoot when Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought 165,000 acres of land near the tiny West Texas town last year and started dropping in regularly in his private jet.
But Larry D. Simpson respected the billionaire's privacy.
"I have not been real pushy, like maybe a big-city newspaper guy would be," he said.
He thinks that's why Bezos decided to give him the story that aerospace writers around the globe have been stalking for the past several years.
On Monday, Bezos dropped into Simpson's office to say he intends to build a rocket-testing range — and possibly a spaceport — on the high desert north of town.
The plans are part of Bezos' secretive Blue Origin operation, headquartered in a warehouse on East Marginal Way in Seattle. The company has no listed phone number, and Bezos and his spokespeople have steadfastly declined to reveal many details.
After Simpson's scoop was published in yesterday's edition of the weekly newspaper, the lips are loosened — but only slightly.
The company's first project will be a reusable spaceship to carry three people or more to the edge of space and safely back to Earth, said Bruce Hicks, a Blue Origin spokesman.
The craft will launch vertically, like the classic rocket ship of science-fiction movies, and will land vertically as well.
West Texas is a good place to do that, Hicks said.
"It's isolated, and that has a distinct advantage in development and testing of rockets."
Van Horn has a population of 3,000 and is about 120 miles east of El Paso.
The land Bezos bought includes four former cattle ranches and encompasses both flat plains and hill country. The Guadalupe Mountains, with Texas' highest peak, are 15 miles north of the property.
Blue Origin's Web site says the company doesn't intend to stop with a suborbital vehicle. The ultimate goal is to establish an "enduring human presence in space," and Bezos told Reuters in November that his company hopes to progress to orbital vehicles.
Construction on the launch and test facility in Texas will stretch over the next two years, with the first flights for space tourists possible in six to seven years, Hicks said.
That's significantly behind the pace set by Sir Richard Branson, the British airline and entertainment mogul, who says he will start offering suborbital space flights for $200,000 a head by 2007.
Branson's spaceliner will be designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, who won the $10 million X Prize in October for the first private, manned spacecraft. Rutan was bankrolled by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.
Simpson said Bezos stressed that his pace will be methodical and deliberate.
"He said this is something that won't happen overnight," Simpson said. "But I suspect it's going to be a little bigger and move a little faster than they're letting on."
Blue Origin's research and development work will remain in Seattle, Hicks said. The company has assembled a small staff of top-notch designers and engineers, many of them veterans of the space-shuttle program and other projects, such as the DC-X, a vertically launched rocket developed for a missile-defense system.
Newsweek magazine reported last year that developing the suborbital spaceship will cost Blue Origin about $30 million. Allen spent $20 million to develop Rutan's SpaceShipOne.
Bezos told Simpson he picked West Texas for his testing facility partly because he has fond memories of summers spent on his grandparents' ranch in the southern part of the state.
"Blue Origin's facilities could help make West Texas a center for private, space-related activity," Bezos is quoted saying in Simpson's story.
Most local residents are thrilled, Simpson said.
"In West Texas, there are always some sorehead guys that say: 'We don't need to change anything.' But for the most part I would say people's response is: 'Man, that's great.' "
Even as a child, Bezos dreamed of spaceflight. As valedictorian of his Florida high school, his speech was on the need to colonize space.
Now, with a fortune estimated at $1.7 billion, he's wealthy enough to bankroll his own private space program.
"They've got themselves 15 square miles down in Texas," said Eric Meier, whose own shoestring rocket enterprise on the Olympic Peninsula was a loser in the X-Prize competition but who is still hoping to break into the commercial space business.
"We've got Rutan, Branson, Paul Allen — and now Bezos. This could be fun, all right."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company