Blue Origin West Texas Commercial Launch Site Environmental Assessment


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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Blue Origin, LLC (Blue Origin) is a commercial venture that proposes to construct and operate a privately-owned space launch site in Culberson County, Texas. In accordance with the Commercial Space Launch Act, the Federal Aviation Administrationís Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is responsible for regulating certain aspects of the construction and operation of the proposed launch facility by, among other things, issuing required permits or licenses. This environmental assessment has been prepared to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act regarding ASTís decision on issuing such permits and licenses.

Proposed Action

The proposed action is for AST to issue one or more experimental permits and/or licenses to Blue Origin. Blue Origin proposes to launch reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) on suborbital, ballistic trajectories to altitudes in excess of 99,060 meters (325,000 feet). To conduct these operations, Blue Origin would construct a private launch site, which would include a vehicle processing facility, launch complex, vehicle landing and recovery area, space flight participant training facility, and other minor support facilities.

Candidate launch sites included two privately-owned parcels in Culberson County, Texas, the proposed state-sponsored Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham, New Mexico, and the Pecos County Aerospace Development Corporation-sponsored Pecos County West Texas Spaceport at Fort Stockton, Texas.

Blue Origin subsequently elected to conduct a more detailed analysis of the Culberson County sites. Blue Origin determined that launching from a remote, privately-owned, launch site would offer significant cost, schedule, and operational benefits for its proposed activities. For these reasons, Blue Origin determined that the Culberson County alternatives would best permit the company to conduct innovative, flexible RLV operations consistent with its program, schedule and cost requirements.

Affected Environment

Overview

The proposed Blue Origin launch site is approximately 40.2 kilometers (25 miles) north of Van Horn, Texas. It lies within a larger, privately-owned property known as the Corn Ranch.

Air Resources

The proposed launch site is located in an air quality control region that has always been in attainment with Federal and state ambient air quality standards, and therefore analysis of conformity to the Clean Air Act is not required. The air quality in Culberson County can be generally considered as unimpaired. There are no air monitoring stations in Culberson County, therefore, the county is deemed unclassifiable/attainment for all National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). (40 CFR 81.344)


2 DESCRIPTION OF THE PROPOSED ACTION AND ALTERNATIVES

2.1 The Proposed Action

The proposed action is for the FAA to issue one or more experimental permits and appropriate licenses to Blue Origin to authorize Blue Origin to conduct the activities described in this EA. Blue Origin proposes to launch space flight participant-carrying RLVs on suborbital, ballistic trajectories to altitudes in excess of 99,060 meters (325,000 feet) above mean sea level. The proposed location for the Blue Origin launch site is privately-owned land in Culberson County, Texas. Operations at the launch site would include pre-flight processing, launch, flight, landing, and recovery activities.

To conduct these operations, Blue Origin proposes to construct a private launch site, including a vehicle processing facility, launch complex, vehicle landing and recovery area, a space flight participant training facility, and other minor support facilities. Descriptions of the specific facilities to be constructed at the proposed Blue Origin launch site are provided in Section 2.1.1.4 of this EA. Exhibit 2-1 shows the relative location of these facilities on the Blue Origin site. Blue Origin proposes to develop, launch, and land a suborbital RLV referred to as the New Shepard Reusable Launch System. Blue Origin proposes to develop the New Shepard RLV incrementally, beginning with low-altitude vehicle testing, progressing to higher-altitude testing, and culminating with commercial flights. Early testing would use prototype vehicles that are smaller and/or less capable than the proposed end design. There would be fewer impacts associated with pre-commercial development and testing than those associated with the commercial activities described below.

According to the FAA regulations, an applicant is responsible for providing the FAA with information sufficient to conduct environmental and policy reviews and determinations for the proposed action. This EA is intended to fulfill the NEPA requirements for issuing experimental permits and appropriate licenses to Blue Origin. The successful completion of the environmental review process does not guarantee that the FAA would issue these permits and/or licenses to Blue Origin. The project also must meet all FAA safety, risk, and financial responsibility requirements. Additional environmental analysis would be conducted for any activity proposed by Blue Origin that is not addressed in this EA or in previous environmental analyses.

Description of the Proposed Commercial Launch and Reentry Activities

Blue Origin proposes to develop and operate commercial launch and landing/recovery facilities for Blue Origin-developed RLVs. Each New Shepard RLV would be capable of transporting three or more space flight participants to the edge of space using a suborbital trajectory. Blue Origin proposes to construct a launch site, located on private property in Culberson County, Texas. This EA addresses the overall impacts to the environment of the proposed operations anticipated for the five-year period under consideration in this EA. A more detailed outline of the proposed schedule for Blue Origin's operations is included in Section 2.1.1.3 of this EA. Blue Origin's proposed activities would include

  • Construction of an RLV launch site and a landing/recovery area,
  • Launch and landing/recovery operations,
  • Space flight participant training activities, and
  • Sustained commercial launch, flight, landing and recovery of space flight participants.

2.1.1 Blue Origin New Shepard Reusable Launch System

The New Shepard RLV system would be comprised of a propulsion module and a crew capsule (CC) capable of carrying three or more space flight participants to space. The CC is stacked on top of the propulsion module. The stacked vehicle would have a roughly conical shape with a base diameter of approximately 7 meters (22 feet) and a height of approximately 15 meters (50 feet).

The propulsion module would be fully reusable, would carry its own avionics, and would operate autonomously under the control of on-board computers. The propulsion module would use 90 percent concentration hydrogen peroxide, called high test peroxide (HTP) and rocket propellant (RP) grade kerosene as the propellants. The propulsion module would have a combined propellant load of HTP and RP of approximately 54,431 kilograms-mass (120,000 pounds-mass). The propulsion module would have a thrust capability of approximately 1,023,091 Newtons (230,000 pounds-force) at liftoff. The propulsion module may have a low-thrust Reaction Control System (RCS) using either monopropellant HTP or pressurized gas, such as helium or nitrogen, also known as a cold-gas system.

The CC would also be fully reusable, would carry its own avionics, and would operate autonomously under the control of on-board computers. The cabin would be pressurized and have systems for maintaining temperature, humidity, and oxygen and carbon dioxide partial pressures. The CC would carry small solid rocket motors for use in an emergency abort situation. The solid rocket motors proposed for use have a DOT/Department of Defense explosive hazard classification of Class 1.3. Class 1.3 explosive hazards are described as materials that burn vigorously, but have limited explosive potential. These motors would be composed of an aluminum hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene composite propellant with a total mass of 500 kilograms-mass (1,100 pounds-mass) or less. These motors produce an average combined thrust of approximately 533,787 Newtons (120,000 pounds-force) approximately two seconds. The CC may have a low-thrust RCS using either monopropellant HTP or cold gas. The New Shepard RLV would have three possible flight scenarios - two nominal scenarios and one emergency scenario. In the first nominal scenario, the New Shepard RLV would perform a vertical takeoff from the test pad; fly a suborbital trajectory nearly straight up; shut down engines after approximately two minutes and coast to an altitude in excess of 99,060 meters (325,000 feet) before descending; and restart its engines several thousand feet above the ground for a precision vertical powered landing on the landing pad. The time from engine restart to landing would be less than 15 seconds, and the propulsion module would use less than 444,822 Newtons (100,000 pounds-force) of thrust for landing. During this entire mission, the propulsion module and CC would remain attached. Total mission time from liftoff to landing would be less than 10 minutes.

In the second nominal scenario, the New Shepard RLV would fly a similar trajectory as the first scenario during ascent, except that shortly after main engine cutoff, the propulsion module and CC would separate. The separation would be accomplished using a combination of springs and possibly a low-impulse RCS burn to assure collision avoidance. The small solid rocket motors used for emergency separation would not be ignited and would remain on the propulsion module as the CC separates. Both the propulsion module and CC would reach an altitude in excess of 99,060 meters (325,000 feet) before beginning their descent. The propulsion module would perform a precision vertical powered landing on the landing pad as in the previous scenario, while the CC would land within the launch site perimeter fence using devices to induce atmospheric drag, such as parachutes.

The emergency scenario involves the emergency separation of the CC from the propulsion module. If an anomaly is detected autonomously or if a command is sent by a ground operator prior to liftoff or during ascent flight, the propulsion module and CC would separate to protect space flight participant safety. Emergency separation would be accomplished by use of the small solid rocket motors on the CC. In this instance, the CC would be jettisoned and the propulsion module would attempt to land back at the landing pad if it is in-flight. After solid rocket motor burnout, an abort module containing the spent and any unfired solid rocket motors would be jettisoned from the CC and would follow a ballistic free-fall trajectory to the ground. The CC would also follow a ballistic free-fall trajectory to a predefined lower altitude, where a parachute or other drag system would deploy and return the crew capsule to the launch site recovery area safely. In some rare cases, the vehicles may land outside the fence line of the proposed launch site. However, in nearly all cases the vehicles would stay within the boundaries of private land controlled by Blue Origin and present no danger to the public. The vehicle's thrust would be terminated if the RLV's instantaneous impact point (IIP) moves more than 4 nautical miles from the test pad. In the unlikely event the vehicles impact outside the privately controlled Blue Origin land, the surrounding properties consist of extremely sparsely populated rangeland.

2.1.2 New Shepard Prototype Test Vehicles

Before flying the human-carrying operational New Shepard RLV for commercial operation, Blue Origin proposes to develop and flight test a series of unmanned prototypes at the West Texas launch site. The first of these vehicles would be a low-altitude demonstrator of the propulsion module using approximately 2,042 kilograms (4,500 pounds) of HTP as a monopropellant, capable of reaching an altitude of no more than 610 meters (2,000 feet) with a mission time of less than one minute. This first demonstrator vehicle, and all other New Shepard prototypes, would have less performance capability and therefore, fewer environmental impacts than the operational New Shepard RLV. The prototypes would use the same or a subset of the same types of propellants as the operational New Shepard RLV in smaller quantities; use the same ground facilities, infrastructure, and equipment; and generate less noise, less air pollution, and fewer impacts in all categories under study. Each new prototype would fly to higher altitudes and/or demonstrate additional subsystems than the previous prototype. 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.

Rather than providing detailed information on potential configurations of these prototype vehicles, this study uses the final operational New Shepard RLV configuration as the basis for assessing environmental impacts. This analysis bounds the potential impacts of the earlier vehicles and results in a conservative analysis of the potential impacts associated with the testing and operation of RLVs from the proposed site.

2.1.3 Development Schedule

Blue Origin proposes to conduct the following activities at the West Texas launch site during the next five years.

  • 2006: The majority of facility construction at the site would occur during this period. In the third and fourth quarters of 2006, Blue Origin would ship the first prototype low-altitude test vehicle to the site and conduct the first flight tests. Ten or fewer flight tests could be conducted in 2006, each to an altitude of approximately 610 meters (2,000 feet) for less than one minute.
  • 2007-2009: Continued flight testing of prototype vehicles with incrementally increasing capability. During these years, Blue Origin proposes to gradually expand the operational envelope of its vehicles, conducting 25 or fewer launches per year. A wide range of tests are anticipated, ranging in altitude from under 610 meters (2,000) feet to greater than 99,060 meters (325,000 feet), lasting one minute or less to over 10 minutes. Development tests of the crew capsule abort system would be conducted during this time frame. During this time, some construction to upgrade the facility would also occur, adding additional infrastructure to support the increasing capabilities of the system.
  • 2010: Commercial operations may commence with the operational New Shepard vehicle in this timeframe. The flight rate would depend on market demand, but Blue Origin anticipates rates up to approximately 52 launches per year of the New Shepard RLV. 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 and are analyzed in this EA only with respect to potential cumulative impacts.

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