By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (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 $200 million to build the rocket-making facility adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The vehicles will blast off from a refurbished launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of NASA's seaside 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,” Bezos told an invitation-only crowd gathered at the company's launch site.
Bezos' announcement comes at a pivotal time in the U.S. space industry, which is luring private 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,” 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 62 (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 250- (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. 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,” Bezos said.
ULA also is backing an alternative engine under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc, which last month submitted a $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,” Bezos told Reuters.
Bezos said Blue Origin's new rocket should debut before the end of the decade. He declined to say how much he had invested in Blue Origin to date but said it was "significant with much more to come."
"I'm a huge believer that this is a viable and good business," Bezos said. "I'm also kind of well known for being long-term oriented, although I think Blue Origin is going to set a new standard for me in that regard."
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Daniel Grebler and Tom Brown)