Amazon's Jeff Bezos plans rocket plant, launch pad in Florida

Amazon founder and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (L)announces plans to build a rocket manufacturing plant and launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Tuesday.
Amazon founder and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (L)announces plans to build a rocket manufacturing plant and launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Tuesday. PHOTO: REUTERS

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (REUTERS) - Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unveiled plans on Tuesday to build a rocket manufacturing plant and launch site in Florida to better compete with fellow billionaires using their fortunes and tech prowess to open a new frontier in human space travel and exploration.

Bezos' space startup, Blue Origin, intends to invest more than US$200 million (S$ to build the rocket manufacturing facility adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Centre.

The rockets will fly from a refurbished launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of the NASA spaceport.

"As a kid, I was inspired by the giant Saturn 5 (Apollo moon) missions that roared to life from these shores. Today, we're thrilled to be coming to the Sunshine State for a new era of exploration," Mr Bezos told an invitation-only crowd gathered at the site where the company's new launch pad will be constructed.

His announcement comes at a pivotal time in the US space industry, which is luring private sector investment and technological innovation in an attempt to lower the cost of space travel and improve safety.

Blue Origin is competing against Elon Musk's SpaceX and a handful of other startups backed by billionaire entrepreneurs, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Virgin Group Chief Executive Richard Branson.

Like Branson's Virgin Galactic, one of Blue Origin's goals is to fly tourists into suborbital, and ultimately orbital, space.

"For sure, this is an industry where people are competitive, but I think it's also an industry where there is a lot of heart and people doing this for reasons of passion," Mr Bezos said. "If my only goal were to make money, I'd would just open a new kind of snack food company. It's way more likely to work ... but I don't want to do that," he added.

Blue Origin has been developing and testing a small rocket in West Texas, called New Shepard, that can travel about 100 km above the planet before returning to Earth. The company's new rockets, which have yet to be named, will be able to reach orbital altitudes, such as the 400 km mile-high perch of the International Space Station, and beyond.

Blue Origin also will test its new BE-4 engines in Florida. The company is partnering with United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint-venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, on the engine development.

Mr Bezos later told reporters he is not sure whether the engine would fly first on ULA's Vulcan rocket, or Blue's booster. "Our approach on this is very simple, which is heads down, focus on the technology," he said.

ULA also is backing an alternative engine under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc, which last month submitted a US$2 cash billion offer to buy ULA. "Ultimately (ULA) will make the decision about what they want to do, but we're going to work our butts off to give them a great engine," Mr Bezos told Reuters.

So far, Florida has invested about US$2 billion to lure aerospace companies to the state, which suffered economically with the shutdown of NASA's space shuttle program in 2011.

Boeing announced the opening of a commercial spaceship assembly plant at the Kennedy Space Centre just last week.