For a supposedly hi-tech company involved in exploring the futuristic notion of space tourism, it is surprisingly difficult to make contact with anyone at Blue Origin's headquarters in Seattle. The firm is not listed in the local telephone directory and its website offers no other means of contact - unless you are a rocket scientist, in which case you are invited to send an e-mail to the company's recruitment department.
A sceptic may wonder if Blue Origin is for real, or just another cyber tiger. Yet the name adorns a blue awning outside a warehouse in a street off Duwamish Waterway in Seattle. Records of the company's registration in 2000 reveal that it was set up from an office in the city's old Pacific Medical Centre, a building occupied by Amazon.com, the world's biggest internet retailer.
Blue Origin is the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com. But don't try ringing him about it: no one, it seems, wants to talk about Blue Origin, least of all Bezos. Not talking is perhaps the prerogative of rich men, and Bezos is an extremely rich man, with a fortune estimated at $1.7bn (£1.1bn).
But back in February, a couple of weeks before the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the skies over Texas, Bezos did talk, in private at least, about Blue Origin and his space ambitions. He had been invited to lunch at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology, which is contracted by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to run its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, one of the top research centres in the world for the exploration of space.
Caltech was courting Bezos because it was looking for financial sponsors for its new, ground-based telescope. After a tour of some of JPL's research projects, the party sat down to lunch. Bezos had brought along a few of his employees from Blue Origin, as well as the science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson, a close friend and confidant of the internet billionaire.
Over lunch, the Caltech scientists realised that their dreams of receiving a large cheque for their new telescope were not to be. "It became obvious that Blue Origin was where Bezos was putting his money," recalls Richard Ellis, a Caltech scientist and a former professor of astronomy at Cambridge University.
Ellis sat between two of the Blue Origin employees and quizzed them closely about their space ambitions. They pretty much toed the company line, as it is described on its one-page website for potential recruits. "You must have a genuine passion for space. Without passion, you will find what we're trying to do too difficult. There are much easier jobs," it reads.
"Our hiring bar is unabashedly extreme," it continues. The company's policy is to keep its research teams deliberately small, "which means that each person occupying a spot must be among the most technically gifted in his or her field". Tellingly, perhaps, the website boasts: "We are building hardware, not PowerPoint presentations. This must excite you. You must be a builder."
During the meal, Ellis began to quiz Bezos and his people about exactly what Blue Origin was building, or attempting to build. He wanted to get some idea of the physical mechanism they had in mind to get people into space more economically than a rocket paid for with government taxes. The Blue Origin people talked about propulsion, energy sources and related space-travel issues, but Ellis was not impressed. "To be honest, my opinion at the time was that it sounded really wacky," he says.
Wacky or not, Bezos is not alone. Quite a few very rich men are interested in private space travel. Take Peter Diamandis, a multimillionaire and entrepreneur who has set up a $10m prize for the first privately-financed company to send a three-person crew into suborbital space twice in two weeks using the same, reusable vehicle. Diamandis has called it the X-prize, after the "X" series of aircraft developed by the US government for high-altitude flight.
Diamandis got the idea for a space-travel prize after reading a book called Spirit of St Louis written by Charles Lindbergh, who in 1927 was the first person to make a solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Lindbergh's flight to Paris had been a bid for the $25,000 Orteig prize. Just as the aviation pioneers of the last century were spurred on by cash prizes, similar awards might jump-start private space travel in the 21st century, Diamandis thought.
When the X-prize was launched in the Midwest city of St Louis in 1996, many space engineers considered it something of a joke. After all, it took billions of dollars to get a man into space and - more important - back again safely. But there are now about 25 entrants, some more serious than others, who believe they could win the X-prize.
Perhaps the most serious is a project run by a Californian aviation maverick called Burt Rutan, who has a proven track record in designing and building unusual aircraft. His White Knight - a plane described by Wired magazine as like a spaceship mated with a waterbug - was flight-tested over the Mojave desert in California earlier this year. Rutan, who is rumoured to have the financial backing of Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire, hopes that White Knight will take a smaller, stubby-winged craft, called SpaceShipOne, to 50,000ft. At this altitude, it will be jettisoned and its rocket engines fired to take its three-person crew into suborbital space, 60 miles above the ground.
At this height the world looks very different. For a start, you are above more than 99 per cent of the Earth's atmosphere and you can distinctly see the curvature of the planet. This is where Alan Shepherd, America's first astronaut, went on his maiden flight into space in 1961. But it is still a far cry from true orbital space - the place where Yuri Gagarin, the world's first astronaut, had gone a few weeks earlier in his epic round-the-world voyage.
Going suborbital is like firing a cannonball into the sky and waiting for it to come back down again. It requires speeds of only about 2,500mph, and is the equivalent in terms of distance to going from Watford to Birmingham and back again. True orbital space travel - when you accelerate fast enough to fly continually above the Earth's surface - can only be achieved if the space vehicle reaches 17,000mph.
The problem is that there is no halfway house - you are either in suborbital flight or true space orbit. And if you reach orbit, there is the complex and dangerous issue of re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, with all the friction and heat this generates - a phenomenon that led ultimately to the disintegration of the Columbia shuttle.
Ellis says that a prize for a suborbital flight does little, if anything, to foster true orbital space travel. "It's like being in the early 19th century and someone says, 'Well, I'm sure one day someone will get to the South Pole, here's a million-dollar prize for someone to go to the equator.' Getting into space cheaply - genuinely into space, that is - is a very different thing."
Alan Bond, the British rocket engineer who was the brains behind the ill-fated but revolutionary Hotol (horizontal take-off and landing) rocket engine, is equally scathing about the claims being made for the X-prize. "It's very fringe, and in particular it is potentially dangerous. On paper you can lash up a rocket and get the prize, provided you can cut out the safety measures. But it is putting lives at risk for no possible gain," says Bond, who now runs an Oxfordshire-based company called Reaction Engines.
If safety was not an issue, it might be possible to build a reusable vehicle capable of suborbital flight for about $30m, but if fare-paying passengers are involved it would be necessary to multiply this price by at least 10 to ensure a modicum of safety. "If industry was to build such a vehicle properly, the development costs alone would be well over $1bn. And they are offering a prize of $10m, which means there can be only one way of doing it."
In other words, by sacrificing safety, Bond says. Take just this single example of what needs to be done. Building just one crucial component of a rocket engine - the combustion chamber - would require about 400 test firings. "We are, after all, talking about the release of energy equivalent to a small power station, and the name of the game is test, test, test and test again. That costs money."
More important, Bond wonders, what would be the point of a suborbital flight lasting no more than 10 or 15 minutes? "Trips round the lighthouse have been popular for a number of years," he says, but they serve no purpose other than amusement for people with money to spend.
This is not quite how the backers of the X-prize see it. To these entrepreneurs, space offers hope of economic benefits and the opportunity for personal growth. "Just as America became a symbol of hope for millions around the world, space will offer the promise of freedom and opportunity to the billions living in the 21st century," says the X-prize website.
But one cannot help but feel that the very rich men behind the private push to send people into space are not all in it for the benefit of humankind. As Richard Ellis says: "These guys have lots of money to spend, and they seem to be having fun."
When he met Jeff Bezos, he came away with the distinct impression that the Amazon boss was having fun also with the idea of space tourism. "But I have to say I just didn't see any evidence that Bezos and Blue Origin had an idea." It will take more than a rich man's intellectual distraction to get fare-paying passengers into space - and safely back again.Reuse content