Long-delayed Camden Spaceport decision nears final countdown

The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to announce July 19 whether to approve a permit for the controversial Camden County Spaceport. This rendering depicts launch control and payload processing centers. Courtesy Camden County

This story was updated at June 9 12:30 p.m. to reflect the U.S. Navy letter from May is now comfortable with Spaceport’s plans to address national security concerns raised earlier.

The saga of Camden County’s ambitious plans to launch rockets off Georgia’s coast could finally be resolved this summer.

The Federal Aviation Administration is planning a June 18 release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the controversial Camden Spaceport and the agency plans to either sign off on the project or stop the countdown.

And as the FAA’s July 19 permit date nears, critics who complain the proposed rocket launches pose safety hazards to nearby barrier islands continue to urge the agency to delay the review process or kill Camden’s space dream.

Meanwhile, the Camden County Commission and other supporters say they remain optimistic that the Spaceport will become a significant job generator that ignites Georgia’s aerospace industry.

Camden’s permit application calls for building a site in Kingsland that launches rockets into the atmosphere in a scaled-down operation from the county’s initial plans for rockets as large as the 230-foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9.

Still, environmentalists worry that the published review won’t take into account the higher failure rate among smaller rockets and the potential damage from debris, and the chance of wildfires.

“If you’re telling me you’re going to launch rockets that have a 20% failure rate over salt marshes, shipping channels, Cumberland Island, Little Cumberland Island… that’s not going to fly with me,” said Megan Desrosiers, president and CEO of the environmental group One Hundred Miles.

Spaceport advocates claim the rockets are much less likely to fail and that protocols will be in place to protect residents and the natural resources.

“The proposed Camden Spaceport site is located on the I-95 corridor near the Atlantic Ocean and is surrounded by a large undeveloped buffer zone,” says a recent Camden Spaceport newsletter sponsored by the county.

Spaceport backers claim it would also attract more aerospace-related companies into the area and provide jobs for graduates of Georgia Tech and other state colleges. 

Desrosiers is among those who say that local leaders are exaggerating the economic impact. Chief among those challenged claims is that the venture will create 2,000 jobs.

The county has spent more than $8 million on the project first submitted to the FAA in 2015.

“If the desire of the private sector was to build a spaceport in Camden, I think the space industry would not be knocking at the door but barging the door down to get into Camden,” she said.

Overall, the county has received interest from five launch vehicle companies, three space tech companies and two satellite manufacturers, said Steve Howard, Camden County Administrator and Spaceport Project lead.

He said he is confident that the FAA will approve the county’s plan and his goal is to have the first launch to space in fewer than two years. 

The project received support from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp when he was a candidate on campaign trail in 2017, but he recently declined to comment while the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is reviewing whether the proposal violates any state environmental laws.

This spring, Democratic U.S. Sen Raphael Warnock told FAA officials he was troubled by the plans and asked the department to slow its review to account for the change in scope of Camden’s proposal. 

Following a September executive order from then-President Donald Trump, the FAA decided a new environmental review with a new round of public hearings didn’t need to be completed based on the new smaller rockets proposed.

“This is not the time to cut corners on environmental review or cut out public participation in the evaluation of this project,” Warnock wrote in a May 17 letter to the FAA. “The incoming FAA leadership should be given the opportunity to evaluate these issues fully with the benefit of public input before moving forward with a final decision.”

Camden officials requested to submit the scaled-down application in December 2019 after the FAA questioned how the county could safeguard people who live near the proposed launch site.

 In 2019, the U.S. Navy, which operates Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay about 10 miles away near the Florida border, expressed national security concerns. However, a Naval official wrote to an FAA administrator in May that after reviewing mitigation plans, the Department of Defense will agree to the Spaceport proposal if certain conditions are met, including resolving any scheduling conflicts. 

“DoD recognizes that continued close communication will be required with the FAA and spaceport Camden due to the unique national security requirements of neighboring Kings Bay and the close proximity of DOD restricted use airspace and sea space,” wrote John Hill, assistant secretary of defense for Space Policy.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources will consider about 1,700 public comments it has received about the Camden proposal, the vast majority of which are from opponents. 

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.