Spaceport delayed as Camden County suddenly plans for smaller rockets
By Beau Evans -December 18, 2019
The launch date for Spaceport Camden is on indefinite hold after federal regulators held up an expected approval of Camden County’s license to operate the facility, prompting questions over the project’s future.
County officials recently scrapped plans to launch larger rockets like the 230-foot-tall SpaceX Falcon 9 from a pad near the coast. Instead, the new focus is on smaller satellite-bearing rockets that will burn up in the earth’s atmosphere. The change requires amending the county’s application for a launch operator license, which the Federal Aviation Administration was supposed to rule on Monday.
County officials made the last-minute request for an application change Saturday, just two days before the FAA’s license approval deadline, said agency spokeswoman Eva Ngai.
County officials didn’t respond to questions Tuesday, including a requested explanation of why they waited until Dec. 14 to ask for a revision. The FAA previously assessed potential impacts from both small and larger sized rockets in a draft environmental study released in March 2018.
Camden County Commission Chairman Jimmy Starline declined to comment Tuesday and referred questions to Steve Howard, the county administrator who is leading the Spaceport project. Howard did not respond to interview requests and questions Tuesday.
The county-funded project cost Camden taxpayers about $7 million since 2015, largely to pay for consultants to prepare the FAA application.
County officials now view smaller rockets the size of mini-fridges that carry satellites into orbit as a more viable economic market than the larger models, said project spokesman John Simpson. He said the county asked to revise its license application to make sure the FAA would approve small-sized rockets and not just the larger units. He declined to elaborate on the timing of the license change request.
“There’s going to be a lot more opportunity for those small launch vehicles,” Simpson said Tuesday. “We want to be absolutely sure that we get a review of those rockets for the market we’re seeking.”
If approved, the spaceport would be one of 12 sites licensed in the U.S. to launch privately owned rockets into space. Located on a roughly 12,000-acre industrial property south of Brunswick, the spaceport originally planned to attract tourists to watch rockets like the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch. Those larger rockets are designed to return to earth for reuse. The facility was on track to start commercial space missions as soon as 2021 before this week’s license delays.
Camden County and state officials eye the project as entry into the more than $300 billion global space industry. The hope was the 12 or so launches per year would pump more than $22 million into the local economy via new jobs, usage fees from rocket companies and a “massive uptick” in tourism. County officials recently told state House lawmakers the project could possibly attract up to 15,000 space enthusiasts per launch event.
“It’s a one-third-of-a-trillion-dollar industry now,” said the administrator Howard, as quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in 2015. “We need to get a share of it.”
Gov. Brian Kemp backed the spaceport project during his successful 2018 campaign governor. He has touted it as an economic boon for the state’s rural southeast region.
“Spaceport Camden is a visionary project that will bring high-paying aerospace jobs to Southeast Georgia while supporting a new wave of STEM education and career opportunities to the region,” Kemp said in a January news release.
But some local residents and environmental groups worry over safety and environmental impacts of rockets flying over the nearby Cumberland Island National Seashore. They also suspect the county’s economic promises for the spaceport are overblown.
Lowering the rockets’ size does not diminish local fears of a catastrophic crash or explosion on Cumberland Island, said Megan Desrosiers, the CEO for the Brunswick-based nonprofit environmental group One Hundred Miles.
“I don’t think this place is appropriate for any kind of rocket, small or large,” Desrosiers said Tuesday. “And the longer this goes on, the more taxpayer dollars get spent, not just by Camden County but by the federal government as well.”
Commercial rocket explosions are rare but do pose risks to “injure or kill species or damage habitat adjacent to the launch pad or within areas impacted by the debris,” according to the FAA’s 2018 environmental study. Explosions could also cause forest or brush fires capable of causing months-long habitat loss, the study says.
The last-minute application changes sparked local suspicions the federal government was about to reject the spaceport’s license when the county submitted its revision request. Some local residents doubt the county can overcome safety and environmental concerns enough to gain final federal approval, said Steve Weinkle, a retired Camden County resident who runs the website Spaceportfacts.org.
“Do you really think that if a rocket crashes on Cumberland Island, that there would be another launch?” Weinkle said Tuesday. “This project won’t end up going anywhere.”
The nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center called for more transparency given the estimated $7 million in public money already spent on the project.
“The (Camden County) Commissioners should stop wasting taxpayer money and recognize the obvious: this is the wrong location for such a risky, unprecedented project,” said law center senior attorney Brian Gist in an email Tuesday.