Amazon Founder Has Sights Set on Space

Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos has pulled back the curtain a bit on his super-secret personal space program in suburban Seattle. Outside experts say Bezos' company, Blue Origin, may have a shot at making regularly scheduled private space flight a reality.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Some of the perks of being a billionaire include nicer cars, a better wardrobe, your own rocket ship. That's precisely what Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, has been working on in his laboratory. This week, the secretive rocket company released the first videos of a prototype space vehicle taking a low altitude test flight. Its all part of Bezos's plan to bring low-cost space flight to the masses.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE: The videos appeared this week on Bezos's rocket company Web site, blueorigin.com.

(Soundbite of tones)

Unidentified Man: Standby for the terminal count.

KASTE: They show a white cone with a rounded nose about 25 feet high, sitting on a concrete launch pad in rural Texas.

Unidentified Man: Five, four, three, two, one...

(Soundbite of rocket blasting off)

KASTE: And it takes off like, well, a rocket, reaching about 300 feet in 11 seconds. Then it pauses and descends slowly using its thrusters to settle back into the same position from which it launched. It's all very Buck Rogers, and rocket scientists have been clicking on the Web site all week to take a look.

Professor ADAM BRUCKNER (Chairman, Aeronautics and Astronautics, University of Washington): And I'll bet you they'll have a lot of hits - if nothing else, from all of our students here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KASTE: Adam Bruckner is chairman of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the University of Washington. He says his top students are clamoring for jobs at Blue Origin, and he's been allowed a peek inside the company's factory in suburban Seattle. Bruckner says it seems to be a professional and methodical operation. And he believes Bezos stands a better chance than most billionaire spaceship builders in achieving the goal of cheap space flights.

Prof. BRUCKNER: This is intended for the rest of us. It'll still be expensive, but it won't be $20 million. It might be 200,000 at first, then 20,000, and then maybe 5,000. You know, eventually, everybody wants to lower the cost of space to about the cost of a round-trip first class ticket to Europe.

KASTE: Blue Origin is aiming to take its first paying passengers on sub-orbital flights by 2010. And at least one other company is promising similar flights in 2009. But John Pike, a space industry expert and director of globalsecurity.org, says he'll believe in cheap space travel when he sees it.

Dr. JOHN PIKE (Director, Globalsecurity.org): The performance of rockets today is basically the same as it was when John Kennedy was president. A half dozen countries around the planet have spent decades, hundreds of billions of dollars on trying to improve rockets, and it's just not there. He simply doesn't have enough zeroes in his budget to materially affect the economics of space flight.

KASTE: Of course, Bezos may not really expect his space ship to be economical. He's so secretive about the project, it's hard to know what he's thinking. But he may have betrayed his feelings with the Latin motto that's stenciled on the side of his rockets: Gradatim ferociter. On a hunch, we took it to NPR's resident classics scholar, reference librarian Kee Malesky. She says a strictly literal translation would be step by step, with courage. But she allows that a looser interpretation might also be possible.

KEE MALESKY: To boldly go?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Star Trek" theme)

KASTE: Which just goes to show you, behind the fa├žade of every spaceship-building dotcom billionaire, there usually lurks the soul of a closet Trekkie.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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