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Report: Amazon Founder's Private Spacecraft Would Launch, Land Vertically

A spacecraft taking off from a private West Texas spaceport being bankrolled and developed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos would take off vertically, but unlike NASA's space shuttle would also land vertically, according to an environmental study that offers a glimpse into the secretive plans.

The craft would hit an altitude of about 325,000 feet — or almost 62 miles — before descending and restarting its engine for a "precision vertical powered landing on the landing pad" in sparsely populated Culberson County, about 125 miles east of El Paso.

Those were among the plans detailed in a 229-page draft of an environmental review filed with the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA would issue permits and licenses for the company, Blue Origin, to go ahead with launch plans.

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The report was assembled by Blue Origin and Tetra Tech Inc., an engineering and technical consulting firm based in Pasadena, Calif.

According to Blue Origin's Web site, the company is "developing vehicles and technologies that, over time, will help enable an enduring presence in space."

"We are currently working to develop a crewed, suborbital launch system that emphasizes safety and low cost of operations," the Web site says.

A public hearing on the environmental review was scheduled Tuesday in Van Horn, a town of 3,000 and the closest center of population to the space base.

Bezos, the 42-year-old billionaire who built Amazon into an Internet sales giant, won't attend the hearing, Blue Origin spokesman Bruce Hicks said.

The environmental assessment process is "only one of the steps prior to obtaining an experimental permit for a launch operator's license," FAA spokesman Hank Price said. "We have received permit applications from Blue Origin and are evaluating them for safety and other considerations, as well."

As many as 10 flight tests lasting as long as a minute and reaching an altitude of about 2,000 feet could occur this year at the site, north of Van Horn on the 165,000-acre Corn Ranch purchased by Bezos. Over the following three years, as many as 25 launches would be made annually, growing in altitude to 325,000 feet and in duration to more than 10 minutes.

Commercial flights, a goal of the project, could begin in 2010, according to the timetable in the document, with as many as 52 a year.

"The flight rate would depend on market demand," said the document filed with the FAA.

Bezos, who spent summers on his grandfather's ranch in South Texas as a child, has talked in the past of building spaceships that can orbit Earth and possibly lead to colonies in space.

Construction would cover 223 acres with buildings, launch and landing pads, storage tanks and parking lots, but that's just over 1 percent of the land.

New fencing would be needed to enclose the launch site area, 18,600 acres of desert scrubland and grassland now in use as a private wildlife management area.

Within that fenced area is the likely landing area if something goes wrong with a flight.

"In some rare cases, the vehicles may land outside the fence line," the report says. "However, in nearly all cases, the vehicles will stay within the boundaries of private land controlled by Blue Origin and present no danger to the public."

Some space industry publications and Web sites have reported the New Shepard Reusable Launch Vehicle spacecraft is named for Alan Shepard, who in 1961 became America's first man in space.

Hicks, the Blue Origin spokesman, said he didn't think that was correct.

According to the environmental statement, the craft to be launched from West Texas includes one module for propulsion and one "capable of carrying three or more space flight participants to space."

The two would be stacked atop one another to form a conical-shaped vehicle about 50 feet tall and 22 feet in diameter at the base.

Studies showed no threatened or endangered species in the project area, according to the environmental report.

Also, 14 Native American tribes that may have cultural ties to the area were contacted, but none indicated impact by the project.