Sunday, Jan 07, 2007
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Private space firm launches 1st test rocket

The Associated Press

The first test rocket was launched Monday from a remote West Texas spaceport being built and bankrolled by founder Jeff Bezos.

"There was a launch, a one- or two-minute event," Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Roland Herwig said from the agency's Southwest regional office in Oklahoma City.

The launch occurred about 6:30 a.m. Central time.

"That's all I can tell you at this point," Herwig said. "There will probably be more launches in the future."

The nature of the launch and the type of spacecraft were not known.

A spokesman in Houston for Blue Origin, the company owned by Bezos that is developing the commercial space venture, did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press.

Blue Origin received FAA approval late this summer to begin tests. The secretive company has said that it wants to use spacecraft that launch and land vertically.

The spaceport is in Culberson County, one of the most remote and sparsely populated counties in the state, on part of 165,000 acres of desert, salt lake beds and cattle grazing land Bezos has bought over the past several years. It's about five miles east of Texas 54, the main north-south road from Van Horn to Carlsbad, N.M., midway between Van Horn and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park; it can barely be seen from the highway.

The park, which has some of the highest mountains in Texas, is about 50 miles to the north on the New Mexico border.

Officials in Culberson County were unaware of the launch.

"They never give us any word of what's going on or what they're doing," County Judge John Conoly said Monday from Van Horn, a town of 3,000 about 120 miles east of El Paso and the nearest town to the launch site.

"They're highly secretive," Conoly said.

"They're a private outfit, so I guess they can be that way if they want to be."

Blue Origin, based in Kent, Wash., outside Seattle, obtained a temporary flight restriction from the FAA that began Friday and expired Monday. The restriction barred aircraft from flying within five miles of the spaceport up to 10,000 feet in altitude for five hours each day.

According to documents Blue Origin submitted to the FAA this year, the New Shepard Reusable Launch Vehicle would be cone-shaped, about 50 feet tall and 22 feet wide at the base.

It would consist of two stacked modules. One would provide propulsion, and the other would hold a flight crew, according to the report.

Blue Origin said there could be as many as 10 suborbital tests this year, with flights getting longer and going higher over the next three years.

The company has said it hopes to begin commercial flights in 2010.