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Blue Origin Lifts Off

Looks like the rumors were true.

Rewind with me to last Christmas. That's when enterprising journalists at The Seattle Times reported that Blue Origin, the space venture created by Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) founder Jeff Bezos, was planning a rocket that would take off and land vertically for suborbital space travel.

If that seems crazy to you, you're not alone. NASA has long avoided rockets that land vertically, opting instead for the dramatic splashdowns common during the days of the Apollo program. More recently, the space shuttle was designed to land like any airplane.

But that's changing. NASA now says that the Orion spacecraft, which is being designed by Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) for future journeys to the moon, will be capable of landing on terra firma. And Bezos' craft? Turns out it already has.

In November, CNET reports, Blue Origin launched a prototype spacecraft nicknamed Goddard, presumably after the man who invented the rocket, Robert Goddard. Bezos' Goddard climbed to 285 feet before descending back to Earth.

That's an important step forward on a long path toward the heavens. Writes Bezos at the Blue Origin website, "We're working, patiently and step-by-step, to lower the cost of spaceflight so that many people can afford to go and so that we humans can better continue exploring the solar system. Accomplishing this mission will take a long time, and we're working on it methodically."

Maybe so, but others aren't waiting. An upcoming episode of NOVA on PBS will detail efforts for a 22,000-mile-high cable to transport cargo and people into space. reports that Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is to begin suborbital tourist flights later this year at a price of $200,000 per seat. Branson's venture, however, is based on the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne design.

Bezos, meanwhile, appears content to play the tortoise to Branson's hare. Blue Origin's website lists openings for as many as 15 machinists and engineers who will be tasked with transforming Goddard into what Blue Origin calls its "New Shepard" rocket design, named after pioneering U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard -- the first American in space.

History teaches that billion-dollar innovations are created slowly. With Blue Origin, Bezos seems to have taken the lesson well. That's too bad for go-go-growth investors who want profits right now. But Bezos and Branson both know that a disaster early on would destroy not only lives but also billions in lost market opportunity for space tourism. So go slow, Jeff. We'll be here waiting when you're finally ready for blast-off.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers, ranked 1,320 out of more than 19,200 in CAPS, didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. Get the skinny on all the stocks he owns by checking Tim's Fool profile. Amazon is a Stock Advisor pick. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy will boldly go where no Street analyst has gone before.

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