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Green light for private spaceport

— The Federal Aviation Administration has given the environmental all-clear to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' plans for a suborbital launch operation in West Texas - setting the stage for final approval of the world's first private-sector spaceport.

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation issued its finding of no significant impact (PDF file) on Tuesday, along with a final environmental assessment (PDF file) for the proposed Blue Origin launch site, now under construction 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Van Horn, Texas, on a ranch owned by Bezos.

The documents follow up on a draft environmental assessment that was issued earlier this summer, which went into more than 200 pages' worth of detail on Blue Origin's plans. Since then, the FAA held a hearing in Van Horn and added just a few tweaks. For example, Blue Origin has signed onto an agreement to stop construction work if it came across any remains or historic objects that required preservation.

Several of my own questions about Blue Origin were included - and of course, I could have answered most of them myself if I had looked at the draft document more closely. For example, I should have known that Blue Origin's rocket components would be shipped down from its Seattle-area production facility to West Texas on commercial trucks. Some of them might be marked "Wide Load."

The bottom line is that Blue Origin has apparently cleared the last big hurdle standing in the way of spaceport operations. At the Van Horn hearing last month, the FAA's Douglas Graham said the environmental review process would take longer than the other requirements, which include a safety review and a look at the national security implications of Blue Origin's plans.

Thus, it shouldn't be too long before the FAA issues the appropriate permits and/or licenses for Blue Origin's rocket tests.

Blue Origin's plan is basically unchanged: The bulk of the construction work on the 18,600-acre (7,527-hectare) launch site should be finished up this year, and test flights could begin this year as well.

Those flights would start with relatively small-scale unmanned rocket tests, and lead up to manned flights in the New Shepard, Blue Origin's computer-controlled, vertical-launch-and-landing vehicle. At least three passengers would rise to a height of at least 100 kilometers (62.5 miles), from which they could see a curving Earth below the black sky of space. They'd feel a few minutes of weightless, experiencing what you could think of as the ultimate reverse bungee jump. The FAA document says the ride would last "more than 10 minutes."

Commercial service is due to begin in 2010, with up to 52 flights contemplated during the first year.

Then what? That will be the subject for a future licensing process, the FAA says. "Although Blue Origin proposes to continue operations at roughly the same rate beyond the 2010 timeframe, these operations are outside the scope of this analysis," the document states.

By the time Blue Origin begins taking on customers, several other companies might well be firmly settled in the suborbital space business. Who knows? Bigelow Aerospace might even be setting its sights on orbital trips, which would be much more of a draw than up-and-down jumps to the edge of space.

Will Bezos and his Blue Origin team be getting into the game too late, or will they actually be ahead of the game by receiving their FAA approval first? Feel free to weigh in with your comments.