New Shepard
Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle. Credit: Blue Origin

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has taken a preliminary step to allow Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash., company quietly developing suborbital and orbital spacecraft that could one day carry passengers to space, to launch new vehicles from its West Texas launch site through 2019.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, in an environmental assessment posted to its website and dated February 2014, said there would be no significant environmental impacts if Blue Origin performed as many as 246 flights over six years at its facility in Culberson County, Texas. 

In its assessment, the FAA assumed Blue Origin’s activities at the site would include: testing a new reusable suborbital launch vehicle powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen; constructing new ground systems; launching unregulated amateur-class rockets powered by both solid- and liquid-fueled motors; and performing ground-based engine tests.

The agency’s assumptions are not necessarily indicative of Blue Origin’s pace of activity. From 2006 to 2011, roughly the timeframe for which FAA studied the possible environmental effects of up to 52 Blue Origin launches a year from West Texas, the company notched only five test flights of reusable suborbital vehicles. A sixth launch, in 2012, tested the launch abort system for Blue Origin’s suborbital crew capsule as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development 2 program.

The FAA’s latest determination, formally known as a Finding of No Significant Impact, clears the way for the agency to grant Blue Origin either a license to perform both test launches and revenue-generating commercial space launches, or an experimental permit for test flights only. The company currently holds neither.

Blue Origin was founded by founder Jeff Bezos in 2000. Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, said in December the company plans to begin orbital test flights of an unspecified vehicle powered by the company’s BE-3 liquid-hydrogen, liquid-oxygen engine by 2018.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...