Camden Chairman keeps Spaceport faith despite lengthy failure to launch

When Camden County proposed a spaceport on the coast, it first it asked the federal government for a license to launch rockets as big as the 230-foot-tall SpaceX Falcon 9. The FAA is reviewing downsized plans. Spaceport Camden rendering

Two months after Camden County suddenly scaled back its yearslong quest to become a licensed spaceport capable of launching larger rockets, its chairman and top booster is still all in, saying space-related jobs are the future.

And critics say the recast license application is just the most recent sign that the county might as well have launched $8 million straight into the sun.

Spaceport’s biggest champion is confident his pet project will expand horizons for the coastal community of Woodbine. With the county’s pursuit of a spaceport, Camden is getting an opportunity to participate in the future, said county commission Chairman James Starline.

The private space industry now handles satellites, but plenty of companies are banking on space tourism, suborbital travel, even mining asteroids.

Starline was on the commission in 2012 when the county’s development authority started pursuing permits for a combined airport and spaceport on an old 4,000-acre Union Carbide site

“Space is certainly going to be a major factor in our future. I don’t think anyone can deny that. And we have a very good possibility of not only participating in but leading in the venture,” Starline said in an interview late last month.

Some of the country’s 11 licensed spaceports are built only for vehicles to take off horizontally like airplanes. That is, at the ones that have had launches lately.

But commercial vertical launches will be Camden’s uncommon advantage in the region, Starline said.

Florida’s Cape Canaveral about 200 miles to the south offers some vertical commercial launch space, he said.

“But if the military has something they need to do, the commercial is cast aside [at Canaveral.] That would not happen [in Camden] because we don’t have a military presence on the spaceport.”

However, the iconic Canaveral image of giant rockets isn’t what Camden wants.

Not now, anyway. At first it asked the federal government for a license to launch rockets as big as the 230-foot-tall SpaceX Falcon 9

But as of December, the vision is scaled back. Camden amended its Federal Aviation Administration spaceport application to eliminate references to medium and large rockets. Now county officials are just applying for a license to host small vehicle launches — think about the size of a mini-fridge.

The county scaled back because they now think small vehicles are rapidly becoming the most important segment of the space market, said Camden County Administrator Steve Howard. And besides that, Howard said, smaller vehicles take less infrastructure, so Camden could hit the ground running faster once it gets a license.

In this vision, Georgia makes its own  “Space Coast” ecosystem, as Florida likes to call a stretch of its own Atlantic coast, home to two separately licensed spaceports at Cape Canaveral. Florida’s also got a new spaceport at Cecil Field outside Jacksonville.

But that proximity to Florida is part of what’s got some folks skeptical: They see the county’s roughly $8 million spent since 2014 on this as money squandered on a quixotic space quest.

Opposition has become a nearly full-time occupation for Camden resident Steve Weinkle, who’s built a website to share cautionary news about rocket explosions and fires in other places, post government documents about the Camden evaluation, rebut spaceport boosters and generally explain why he wants the plug pulled on it.

“From an economic development standpoint, we’re wasting our money on something that’s purely speculative,” Weinkle said. 

He points to Midland, Texas. That city pledged $10 million to attract an XCOR Aerospace research and development center in 2012. And it went out of business. A former XCOR executive, Andrew Nelson, is now a Camden consultant. 

Weinkle also says the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, Texas shows how life in a sleepy village can turn into a community punctuated with explosion warnings and sometimes rocked with actual explosions. 

To be sure, some states have already bet a lot more money on space than Camden’s $8 million wager.

The state of New Mexico landed Virgin Galactic as an anchor tenant for its spaceport, but only after spending $220 million on building out a launch facility. Florida ties to  the industry are so entrenched, it has a whole state economic development agency to woo space companies

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp endorsed the spaceport in 2017 when he was running for office.

But that hasn’t translated to any executive-backed state legislation or funding to court the space industry. 

Indeed, the Georgia spaceport lost its No. 1 legislative booster to a 2018 resignation, after a British comedian duped former state Rep. Jason Spencer into yelling racial slurs and dropping his pants on TV

Weinkle thinks the federal government has cut Camden too much slack in its application saga.

“The FAA should have pulled the plug on this years ago,” Weinkle said. 

And then there are the people who fear rockets falling on their Little Cumberland Island homes — or on Cumberland Island National Seashore — and starting fires far from any fire station.

“We’ve been seen as being in the way,” said Kevin Lang, whose wife’s family has had a vacation house on Little Cumberland Island for decades. 

He cites FAA documents that outline the agency’s own concerns about what happens if there’s a failure, an explosion, a fire near the launch site. 

Launching rockets is complex enough, he said. 

“Add the complexity of a spaceport where a launch operator is going to have to buy a launch (insurance) policy that essentially underwrites all of the lives downrange, the unknown number of lives downrange, and their homes,” Lang said.

Starline, the county commission chair, said every big project has opponents.

He said the spaceport push is similar to building an industrial park and attracting tenants.

Sure, counties, cities and the state regularly spend money to woo businesses. Counties pave roads or lay water lines to industrial sites, or even just pay cash to new businesses. The idea is to invest money at first expecting a good return for taxpayers in the future.

But the typical industrial park is home to warehouse distribution centers frequented by 18-wheelers and doesn’t face the high hurdle of federal approval for an activity that scares some neighbors.

Still, Starline isn’t worried about spaceports with underused launchpads. Launches are the icing on the cake, Starline said. They’re the culmination of a lot of other work which is what he wants to see done in the county: Research and development, payload preparation and so on.

But still, that license is key.

“We certainly need the launch from here to attract these others,” Starline said. 

Camden touted interest from ABL Space Systems in 2018, with a press release that announced the small satellite launch provider had a tentative pledge to explore future launch operations in the county. Camden anticipated a full contract by July, 2019.

The California company started by former SpaceX engineers has been leasing a hangar building adjacent to the former St. Marys airport and about 70 acres at the airport for research and development, according to the county development authority.

“They have actually let us know that at the end of this month they will be terminating the lease and they hope to explore Camden again when we have an approved spaceport operators license,” said Camden County Joint Development Authority Executive Director James Coughlin in an email this month.

Starline also said spaceport opponents aren’t working with all the information that public officials have.

“We have (nondisclosure agreements) signed, we have real estate transactions that we can’t discuss. We’re not able to put all of our cards on the table,” the county commissioner said.

But once they can reveal the secret information, it’ll show the risk was justified, Starline said. 

Meanwhile, the FAA is reviewing Camden’s amended application. The federal agency has no deadline to finish its review, said spokeswoman Eva Ngai.

“It is time to get some results. There’s no doubt about that,” Starline said. “We never anticipated it taking this long. But it has.”

Indeed, if everybody agrees on something, it’s that it is time for a conclusion.

But the conclusions they’re hoping for aren’t in the same orbit.