Amazon chief sets out to make space affordable

He has conquered the world of online shopping and now he is set to conquer the universe. Unless, that is, the gophers and chipmunks stop him. Fresh details have emerged about a plan by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, to develop commercial spacecraft that would launch into orbit from a spaceport being planned for the scrubland of West Texas.

A draft environmental assessment filed with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) reveals that the spacecraft being developed for the project will launch and land vertically. It also reveals that 10 test launches could be carried out this year with a further 25 annual tests over the next three years. The project hopes that commercial flights could begin as soon as 2010. The progress of Blue Origin, the space exploration company founded by Mr Bezos several years ago, has been a closely guarded secret, with few details of the proposed project having been made public. Now it has emerged that spacecraft would utlitise a method of landing not before used by a spacecraft.

"Blue Origin proposes to launch reusable launch vehicles [RLVs] on suborbital, ballistic trajectories to altitudes in excess of 99,060 meters (325,000 feet)," says the report. "To conduct these operations, Blue Origin would construct a private launch site, which would include a vehicle processing facility, launch complex, vehicle landing and recovery area, space flight participant training facility, and other minor support facilities." The planned spaceport would be built on land contained within the 165,000-acre Corn Ranch previously bought by Mr Bezos about 40 miles from the town of Van Horn. The report sent to the FAA claims that the environmental impact of spaceport, located in the Chihuahuan Desert, would be minimal.

Yet it admits some current residents might be harassed, or even killed.

"Small numbers of less-mobile, burrow-dwelling animals (e.g. pocket gophers, chipmunks) inhabiting the construction area could be displaced by construction activity or killed if burrows are filled, crushed, or paved," it says. "More mobile animals such as birds and larger mammal species (e.g., jackrabbits, pronghorn) would be expected to disperse to less-disturbed areas of the proposed launch site or off site." Public consultation about the proposals are due to conclude later this week and meeting is due to be held in Van Horn tonight for the town's 3,000 residents.

This latest news about Mr Bezos's space project has been seized on by specialist bloggers. Many have noted that the idea of a spacecraft that utilises both vertical take-off and landing is largely untested. Some pointed to the McDonnell Douglas DC-X, an unmanned prototype of a reusable craft that was developed by Nasa and the Pentagon during the 1990s.

The craft being developed by Blue Origin is called the Shepard, named in honour of US astronaut Alan Shepard, who became the first American to enter space in May 1961. The previous month, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had achieved a similar feat.

The website of Blue Origin states: "We are currently working to develop a crewed, suborbital launch system that emphasizes safety and low cost of operations." As a boy, Mr Bezos, the a 42-year-old billionaire behind Amazon, spent summers on his grandfather's ranch in South Texas. He has previously talked of developing spacecraft that can orbit the Earth and even establish colonies in space.

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