Coastal spaceport plan hits turbulence on eve of federal license announcement

By: - December 16, 2021 9:23 pm

A Camden County judge is set to consider Friday issuing a temporary restraining order based on a petition seeking to prevent the county from buying a former industrial site for Spaceport Camden. Environmental organizations are concerned that the launches could pose a threat to barrier island Cumberland Island National Seashore. National Park Service

Several days before the Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to announce whether it will grant a controversial plan to launch rockets a license, a Camden County judge is expected to rule Friday whether he will issue a restraining order temporarily blocking the purchase of the property for Spaceport Camden.

A temporary restraining order hearing was set on the spaceport after a petition signed by 3,800 Camden residents was submitted to the probate court Tuesday. The petition argues that local residents should be protected from a runaway county government that has spent millions on what they claim is an unsustainable and dangerous plan to launch mid-sized rockets off the Georgia coast.

The FAA signaled it is poised to grant an operator’s license to Spaceport Camden on Monday, announcing it is putting the finishing touches on an agreement with federal agencies, local government officials, and other groups to minimize the potential damage launches might inflict on historic properties if the rockets crash to earth.

However, details on the launches and other specifics are still under wraps after conservationists, the National Park Service and others expressed concerns that rocket explosions could pose a threat to wildlife on nearby barrier islands, including the Cumberland National Seashore.

Megan Desrosiers, CEO and president of coastal conservation organization One Hundred Miles, said that if the judge issues the temporary restraining order, then there will be a 60-day period for signatures to be verified and a 90-day period for a special election to be held.

The petition aims to block the county from purchasing a former industrial site controlled by Union Carbide the county plans to serve as home to the spaceport.

“The county is spending millions and millions of dollars to purchase a property for the spaceport when that site is contaminated and the taxpayers would be held responsible for cleaning up the contamination before any kind of development on that property would occur,” Desrosiers said. “In addition, they’re spending millions and millions of dollars to promote a spaceport when there’s no private spaceport entity waiting in the wings to build and they’ve never had a line item in the county budget for the spaceport.”

The FAA has delayed its decision four times this year to hammer out details, but this latest delay – Wednesday to Monday – is a much shorter postponement than the others. 

“We’ve waited six years for the Spaceport Camden ROD and licensing decision, if the FAA needs the rest of the week to finalize its coordination efforts we can wait a few more days,” Spaceport Camden spokesman John Simpson said by email. “The petition is a Hail Mary attempt by spaceport opponents and doesn’t change anything in Camden County’s application to the FAA.”

Environmental organizations are asking for a more extensive environmental review that fully takes into account the types of rockets proposed for the Spaceport and their failure rates. Last year, spaceport officials scaled down its proposal to the FAA from its initial vision of sending rockets as big as the 230-foot-tall SpaceX Falcon 9 into orbit, a reduction designed to improve the odds of getting the FAA license. 

Spaceport critics say the $10 million tab the county incurred trying to get the spaceport approved will not pay off in the long run. Instead, they contend county officials have grossly overestimated the economic value of a spaceport that the supporters are selling as attracting enough new industry and up to 2,000 related jobs to become an economic driver for the region.

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But Camden commissioners say there’s already interest from outside parties that show the potential of satellite launches and point to a Georgia Southern University study citing it bringing upwards of $3 million in local tourism. The U.S. commercial space industry could grow to $3 trillion by 2047, according to Bank of America.

So far, the county has announced three memorandums of agreement for the spaceport it says can safely operate up to 12 smaller commercial vertical launches a year that could give Camden an uncommon economic advantage in the region.

Through an agreement with the Alaska Aerospace Corp., owner and operator of FAA-licensed Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska, the two spaceports would coordinate with operators interested in launching from both locations.

In a May 2020 agreement, Opixfex Global announced it would explore setting up astronaut training facilities near the spaceport, while ABL Space Systems announced in 2018 that it would work with Spaceport Camden to build, test, assemble, and launch orbital vehicles.

Nevertheless, Desrosiers says the FAA forced Spaceport Camden backers to rethink their plan last year when it required them to present an entirely new proposal featuring rockets that had never been launched before. 

“They’re saying if this rocket were ever to become a viable rocket, then this would be an OK place to launch it from,” she said. “The whole idea has gone from this is the best idea ever to how do we fit a square peg into a round hole?”

Gov. Brian Kemp supported the project in 2017 on the campaign trail, but he declined to comment on the project earlier this year while it was being reviewed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. 

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.

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Stanley Dunlap
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.

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