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Originally published Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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First rocket launched from spacesport owned by Amazon.com founder

Jeff Bezos' secretive space enterprise launched its first rocket early Monday morning from an expanse of West Texas scrubland. The liftoff of the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Jeff Bezos' secretive space enterprise launched its first rocket early Monday morning from an expanse of West Texas scrubland.

The liftoff of the unmanned craft lasted about a minute, said Roland Herwig, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman based in Oklahoma City. "That's all the information I have," he added.

Residents of the nearby town of Van Horn say motels were packed over the weekend with employees of Bezos' Kent-based Blue Origin and their families. But neither the Amazon.com founder nor Blue Origin provided advance notice of the launch, said Dawn Simpson, who publishes the weekly Van Horn Advocate newspaper along with her husband.

"We're feeling like the stupidest newspaper people in the world... but they're not giving us anything," she said.

The company did notify the FAA of the impending test launch. The agency issued a warning to aircraft to avoid the airspace over Bezos' property between Nov. 10 and 13.

Apparently, Blue Origin had hoped to conduct the test while family members were in town, but high winds and technical problems may have delayed the launch until Monday, Simpson said. By then, most of the visitors were gone.

"They had large charter buses. They just kind of showed the families the area — took them to El Paso, Carlsbad Caverns, and had some big cookouts at the headquarters," she said.

Though modest in scope, the initial test launch matches plans laid out in an environmental analysis of the project — one of the few public documents to offer details about Bezos' space aspirations.

His goal is to develop a reusable, cone-shaped spacecraft called the New Shepard, which would stand 50 feet tall and carry three or more tourists to the edge of space — more than 325,000 feet up. The rocket would take off and land vertically. By 2010, Blue Origin could be launching up to 52 flights a year from its Texas base.

Up to nine more test flights are scheduled this year on early prototypes, presumably developed at the company's research facilities in Kent.

The FAA wouldn't say how high the first rocket flew, but the environmental study says the initial launches will reach less than 2,000 feet. Over the next three years, the company plans a succession of more ambitious launches, lasting up to 10 minutes and eventually reaching the target altitude of 325,000 feet or higher.

When Bezos bought 165,000 acres north of Van Horn last year, the billionaire dropped in personally at the Van Horn Advocate to explain his plans. Company representatives answered questions at public hearings. But since then, information has been hard to come by, Simpson said.

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"We've not seen the site," Simpson said. "They don't let anybody in."

The atmosphere is in marked contrast to that in neighboring New Mexico, where Richard Branson, the flamboyant adventurer and entrepreneur, plans to build a spaceport with backing from the state government. His company hopes to send 50,000 tourists into space during its first 10 years of operation — using a spacecraft design bankrolled by Paul Allen, another Seattle billionaire.

"They like publicity." Simpson said. "I guess Mr. Bezos doesn't feel that need."

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

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