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The new space race has touched down in Kent, where Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos is building a rocket-ship complex set to open early next year.

Blue Origin, Bezos’ aerospace company, will use the facility to design and build spacecraft and engines. The company’s near-term goal is to develop a vehicle that can take passengers on a thrill ride to the edge of space.

But eventually, Bezos has said, he wants to build spaceships powerful enough to orbit the Earth. He even hopes to establish permanent colonies in space someday.

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Bezos paid $13 million for just less than 25 acres of industrial land next to the railroad tracks in the Kent Valley. City records show he is spending up to $8 million to remodel an existing office building and warehouse and build an experimental stand where rocket engines will be tested in three-minute-long trial runs. Among the upgrades spelled out in the plans: installation of aircraft hangar doors.

Test launches will be conducted in West Texas, where Bezos recently bought a 165,000-acre ranch near the small town of Van Horn, about 110 miles southeast of El Paso. Long-term plans for that site include a spaceport where three-person space-tourism flights could blast off once a week.

Blue Origin employs about 40 people, and the work force at the Kent site will grow to 70 to 100 over the next several years, city records say. According to its Web site, the company’s design team includes veterans of several major aerospace programs, including the space shuttle, National Missile Defense and the Sea Launch floating rocket-launch platform.

Plenty of space cowboys

Founded in 2000, Blue Origin is one of several private rocket enterprises fueled by the dreams and dollars of wealthy entrepreneurs.

South African Elon Musk, who invented the online-payment system PayPal, is poised to demonstrate a low-cost launch system next month, sending a military satellite into orbit atop his Falcon 1 rocket.

With a fortune earned from the computer games Doom and Quake, John Carmack founded an aerospace company and is testing a rocket called the Black Armadillo.

The most successful of the space mavericks has been Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who spent $20 million to develop SpaceShipOne. Designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, the stubby-winged craft that lands like an airplane won the $10 million Anasari X Prize last year for the first manned commercial space flight.

Richard Branson, the flamboyant owner of Virgin Music and Virgin Atlantic Airways, licensed the technology from Allen and vowed to start taking passengers into space by 2009. Earlier this month, he announced an agreement with the state of New Mexico to build a $225 million spaceport near White Sands Missile Range.

Virgin Galactic, Branson’s aerospace arm, says 100 people have paid the full $200,000 fare for one of the initial flights. Another 38,000 would-be astronauts have put down a deposit, the company says.

Each of the enterprises is focusing on a different approach to the same challenge — developing a reliable, affordable and safe method to get people into space. Competition among the groups will raise the odds of success, said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a daunting technical challenge,” he said.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Soviet space program succeeded in putting people in space, but at enormous cost and with a disaster rate that would be unacceptable for a commercial operation.

Bezos has been the most tight-lipped of all the rocketeers, revealing little about the technology he’s exploring. Blue Origin’s bare-bones Web site offers scant information, and the company isn’t listed in phone books.

Blue Origin spokesman Bruce Hicks said officials don’t want to discuss the project. “They’re not at that stage yet,” he said. “The time will come.”

The only interview the online mogul has granted about his space plans was with the editor of the weekly Van Horn Advocate. Larry Simpson, who publishes the paper out of the back of his Radio Shack franchise, reported that Bezos and Blue Origin program manager Rob Meyerson spoke with him for about 40 minutes in February.

Vertical landings

The basic outline of Blue Origin’s plans emerges from Simpson’s report and documents filed with the city of Kent, which granted permits for construction and operation. A few details were also revealed at public hearings in Texas on Blue Origin’s application for launch permits from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The company is designing a spacecraft that will take off vertically like the classic sci-fi rocket, land the same way and carry three passengers.

The first manned space flights roared straight up from the launch pad and splashed down in the ocean. The space shuttle launches vertically and lands like an airplane. But vertical landing isn’t unheard of, said Logsdon, of the Space Policy Institute.

“The only time a spaceship landed on another planet — the moon — it landed vertically.”

The Russian Soyuz spacecraft comes in bottom-first, using small rockets to ease the impact. Some of Bezos’ team worked on the Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X), a NASA/Pentagon program that developed a prototype of a reusable rocket which began re-entry nose-first, then rolled and touched down on struts at its base.

“My guess is that he’ll have some parachutes involved that will slow it down before it lands,” Logsdon said. “It’s not such a radical idea.”

The team is using kerosene-derived rocket fuel, which is a standard in the industry, Logsdon said.

The 243,000-square-foot office/warehouse building in Kent is being revamped to accommodate cavernous bays, assembly areas, chemical laboratories — and a workout room and day-care center. The 90,000-square-foot rocket-engine test stand will be surrounded by a 12-foot earthen berm.

During tests, the engines will be held inside a steel capsule. The rocket exhaust will be contained in a 60-foot-long, 4-foot-diameter duct. Five thousand gallons of water a minute will circulate around the apparatus, to cool the exhaust and dampen the noise. Documents say the company expects to conduct an average of two rocket-engine tests a week.

The earliest test flights in Texas could occur late next year, depending on FAA approval.

Blue Origin, currently in a warehouse in Seattle’s Duwamish industrial area, plans to move to the Kent site in the first quarter of next year, spokesman Hicks said.

Enthusiasts predict a booming business for space tourism and other business ventures, but it’s not clear how much appeal suborbital flight will hold, said Henry Hertzfeld, an expert in space law and economics at the Space Policy Institute.

Suborbital flights travel about 65 miles up, which would allow passengers to glimpse stars, the blackness of space and the curve of the Earth.

“You can argue about whether that’s the edge of space or not, but it’s still not going into orbit,” Hertzfeld said.

It takes about 10 times as much power and speed to break the bonds of gravity.

But if not for innovators like Bezos, Logsdon asked, who would be pushing the envelope on space travel? “It almost has to be personal money. No venture capitalist … would be investing in this.”

The fledging online bookstore Bezos established a decade ago has propelled him to No. 82 on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest people and revolutionized business. His net worth is estimated at $5.1 billion. His passion for space also runs deep.

The valedictory address he delivered at his high-school graduation in 1982 stressed the need for space colonization.

“I’m not sure this is a hobby for him,” Logsdon said. “I think this is his next big idea.”

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com