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Blue's rocket clues

Some of the contenders in the commercial spaceflight race are more hush-hush than others - and virtually no one is more secretive than Blue Origin, the space effort funded by Amazon.com's billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos. Most of what's known publicly about Blue Origin has come from the rare interview or public-record filing - or from just skulking around.

Fortunately, there's a new public record that provides lots of detail about what Blue Origin is up to - an almost mind-numbing 229 pages' worth. Page for page, it's probably the biggest assortment of Blue's clues yet.

The details are contained in a draft environmental assessment filed with the Federal Aviation Administration, and released by the agency a couple of days ago (PDF file). The FAA says the document will be the subject of a public hearing July 25 in Van Horn, Texas, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of the launch site on Bezos' sprawling 165,000-acre Corn Ranch.

The launch area itself is just a small portion of that property - 18,600 acres - but it will house a processing facility, a launch complex and test stand, a separate landing and recovery area, a training center for paying space passengers and other support facilities. The acreage also has at least two archaeologically significant sites, a bat cave, snake lairs and other features of environmental concern - but based on the document, it sounds as if Blue Origin should be able to handle those concerns.

FAA
The FAA report includes a drawing
of a vertical-takeoff rocket, but
Blue Origin says it hasn't yet
finalized its vehicle design.


As previously reported, Blue Origin is developing a reusable, vertical-takeoff-and-landing rocket ship called the New Shepard - a name that commemorates the late astronaut Alan Shepard and his 15-minute suborbital space jaunt in 1961. It would be capable of flying three or more passengers to the edge of outer space and back, under the control of on-board computers.

The FAA report sports a picture of a vertical-takeoff rocket on its cover, but Blue Origin says that the vehicle design has not yet been "finalized."

The cone-shaped craft would consist of a crew capsule sitting atop a propulsion module, equipped with engines that would run on kerosene and hydrogen peroxide.

A typical flight would run just 10 minutes from launch to landing. Passengers would ride straight up to an altitude of more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) - allowing them to see the black sky of space above a curving Earth, and to feel a few minutes of weightlessness.

The sights passengers might see would include open, flat desert and ranchland, the nearby Delaware Mountains and the "rugged and more picturesque Sierra Diablo," in the words of the report. But don't expect much in the way of monuments: The report notes that the "most significant man-made feature of the area from a visual-aesthetic perspective is State Highway 54, a two-lane blacktop that connects Interstate 10 to State Highways 62 and 180."

FAA

This is the view from a ridge on the proposed launch site on Amazon.com founder
Jeff Bezos' Corn Ranch, looking west toward the Sierra Diablo mountains.


On the way down, there are two possible scenarios: Either the spacecraft would land with the crew capsule still attached to the engines - or the propulsion module would break away and land on its own, with the crew capsule floating back down to Earth beneath parachutes or a similar drag system.

If there were an emergency - either detected by the onboard computer or by controllers monitoring the flight from the ground - the crew capsule would separate and parachute to safety.

The environmental assessment represents just one step in a regulatory process that Blue Origin hopes will result in the necessary permissions for testing and commercial operations - including experimental permits and licenses for the New Shepard as well as the launch site.

Blue Origin has just moved into its new office/production facility in Kent, Wash., south of Seattle, and it plans to send its first demonstration vehicle down to Texas for testing sometime this year. That would be an unmanned rocket set-up capable of going no higher than 2,000 feet (610 meters), with a mission time of less than a minute.

Over the next couple of years, the capability of the unmanned demonstration vehicles would be increased. "Eventually, Blue Origin proposes to perform multiple flight tests of the actual operational New Shepard RLV system carrying Blue Origin personnel before commencing commercial operation," the document says.

Blue Origin aims to start commercial operations in 2010, building up to an average of one launch per week. Most of the flights would take place during the day, but some may occur at night. The company projects that 20 to 35 full-time employees would be traveling to the site during its operational phase.

There's no mention of how much the 10-minute space jumps might cost - and that sort of speculation might be premature anyway, considering that it'll be four years before the rides are available, and that other suborbital spaceflight providers may already be testing price points by that time. (Virgin Galactic and Rocketplane, which may be in operation by that time, have named prices in the $200,000 range.)

But Blue Origin is already thinking ahead, as evidenced by the FAA report's discussion of traffic impacts.

"The potential does exist for sightseers to crowd Highway 54 during launches," the report says. "Recent private space launch attempts associated with the X Prize attracted numerous sightseers, in part due to widespread pre-launch publicity. Given the small population density and remoteness of the site, and the fact that Blue Origin does not plan to actively publicize launch times, the Blue Origin site is not expected to attract as many sightseers as do some other launch sites."

Blue Origin is also planning for a guard station and miles and miles of fences - so although I don't expect security to be as tight as, say, Area 51, it won't be as open as Disneyland either. Which is probably what you want in a place where things could blow up.

Feel free to take a look through the FAA document, check out Clark Lindsey's posting at RLV and Space Transport News, then let me know what you think.