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Private spaceport wins permit

Blue Origin, the secretive spaceship venture backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, has won an experimental permit from the Federal Aviation Administration, opening the way for rocket tests to begin at the company's West Texas test site and spaceport-to-be.

FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed that the agency's Office of Commercial Space Transportation on Friday issued the permit required for the initial rounds of testing on the 18,600-acre site, currently under construction on Bezos' ranchland about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Van Horn, Texas. The permit is good for a year and can be renewed, Price said.

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

He deferred to Blue Origin for further comment. A spokesman for Blue Origin, Bruce Hicks, confirmed that the permit was issued.

"We appreciate the FAA's diligence in issuing the experimental permit, which allows us to move forward with our plans as outlined in the environmental assessment," Hicks told me.

Hicks declined to expand upon the venture's plans for test flights, other than to refer to the detailed environmental assessment drawn up in support of Blue Origin's permit application (PDF file).

Experimental permits are part of the regulatory scheme set up by federal spaceflight legislation approved almost two years ago. The permits allow private ventures to conduct testing of new manned spacecraft - including piloted tests - but they don't allow those ventures to take on paying passengers. For commercial flights, licenses must be issued to the spaceship operator as well as the spaceport.

In this case, Blue Origin is building the rocket ships as well as providing the launch pad for the flight tests. The company had to go through the months-long environmental assessment process, as well as assessments of the venture's national security implications and its safety procedures.

The issuance of a permit was virtually a foregone conclusion, after a public hearing in July turned up no objections and the FAA issued a clean bill of environmental health in August.

With permit in hand, Blue Origin can proceed with plans for unmanned testing at the West Texas site. The company said in its environmental assessment that up to 10 rocket tests could be conducted this year, using a remote-controlled vehicle that would rise no higher than 2,000 feet (610 meters) during flights lasting less than a minute.

Over the next couple of years, the tests would become increasingly ambitious, leading to piloted flights in the 2009-2010 time frame. Blue Origin's environmental assessment calls for suborbital passenger service to begin in 2010, with roughly one flight per week.

Those flights would be conducted in a conical, remote-controlled rocket ship called the New Shepard, which would blast off vertically and rise to an altitude beyond 62 miles (100 kilometers), the internationally accepted boundary of space. At that height, passengers would see a black sky above a curving Earth, and feel a few minutes of weightlessness.

Blue Origin's flight plan provides for two descent options - either a rocket-powered vertical landing, or a separation of the passenger capsule from the propulsion module for a parachute landing.

The launch vehicles would be built at Blue Origin's production facility in Kent, Wash., just south of Seattle, then trucked down to the West Texas site. Sharon Clamp, a staff member at Kent Planning Services, told me that the production facility was still tying up some loose ends in the inspection and permit process. For example, she said the go-ahead had not yet been given for rocket firings at the engine test stand in Kent.

Bezos has said he started up the rocket venture - which is financially separate from Amazon.com - to follow up on a childhood dream of spaceflight. He hasn't been specific about how much he's invested in Blue Origin since its founding in 2000, but records indicate that more than $20 million has been spent on the Kent facility alone.

Blue Origin's potential competitors include Virgin Galactic, Rocketplane Kistler, PlanetSpace and Masten Space Systems, as well as a Russian-American venture involving Space Adventures, Prodea and the Russian Space Agency, among others. All these players have been looking toward the 2008-2010 time frame for the start of passenger service.