Rocket launchpad approved for coastal Georgia; more reviews in store

By: - December 21, 2021 1:00 am

A representation of what the launching pad could look like at the proposed Spaceport Camden. The Federal Aviation Administration announced this week it approved an operator license for the scaled-down project. Rendering courtesy of Camden County

Camden County officials celebrated Monday after receiving the long-awaited word that the Federal Aviation Administration granted a license to run the coastal Georgia spaceport.

With the operator’s permit, Spaceport Camden is one of more than a dozen licensed spaceports in the country. The controversial rocket launching plan has now passed its most significant hurdle after years of effort and multiple delays this year for ongoing negotiations among local officials, state and federal regulators.

The FAA’s decision allows the spaceport to conduct up to 12 small rocket launches over a 10-year period, but each launch will be reviewed separately and require its own approval.

Many Camden County residents and environmentalists opposing the project have warned of the damage falling rockets could bring to the nearby Little Cumberland Island, Cumberland Island National Seashore, beaches, marshes and waterways. 

Since 2012, Camden County leaders have spent $10 million in local taxpayer money for a project they envision filling a void in the private space industry. The dream includes satellites, space tourism, and attracting new businesses to southeast Georgia.

“In the 20th century Camden County was declared the ‘Gateway to Space.’ With this license, we have retained that title again in the 21st century,” said Steve Howard, Camden County administrator and Spaceport Camden executive project lead. “This once in a generation opportunity will provide a new frontier of economic prosperity for Camden, the region and the state of Georgia. Georgia is part of the new space race, and we will become one of the leaders.”

Still, environmentalists point to a recent letter the FAA sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an indicator of how difficult it might be to secure permission for rockets to take off from Spaceport Camden.

Matthew Strickler, deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife, received a letter from the FAA on Dec. 16 detailing the stringent requirements to be fulfilled ahead of any launch approval.

Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, wrote that space vehicles need to undergo more rigorous regulatory safety and environmental reviews, including a flight safety analysis and ensuring each launch is in compliance with federal commercial space transportation laws.

Any additional evaluation will be tailored to the type of rocket the vehicle operator is planning to launch from Spaceport Camden, Monteith said.

“Any subsequent evaluation could reach different conclusions about impacts on the environment, climate change, safety, historic properties, or federally protected lands than the Spaceport Camden (environmental impact statement) due to new and more specific information regarding the proposed 2 launch vehicle trajectory, vehicle design and operating specifications, or other factors,” Monteith said. “Simply put: to obtain a Vehicle Operator License, many more reviews remain, and no outcome is guaranteed.”

Next up, a Camden County Superior Court judge is set to hold a hearing this week to determine if he will order the county to temporarily cease purchasing a former industrial site controlled by Union Carbide for the spaceport.

A 60-day period is set aside for the court to verify petition signatures. If the signatures are confirmed, a 90-day period is triggered for a special election to be held.

Megan Desrosiers, CEO and president of coastal conservation organization One Hundred Miles, said that the aviation administration’s letter and Monday’s announcement are a sign that no corners will be cut with a project of this size.

“The FAA didn’t say we’re not granting the license, but I think they did the next best thing and that was granting the license but saying this does not entitle you to launch one rocket from Spaceport Camden,” Desrosiers said. “So what that means to me is that we don’t have Spaceport Camden.”

County leaders estimate it will take at least a year to establish a launch pad, load processing center, welcome center, and other components of the project. This would be the third vertical lift facility in a region of the country ripe for this type of commercial space exploration relying on the low latitude along the east coast for extra velocity, according to Camden officials.

Downsized from the original scope of rockets large enough for commercial space tourism, the small rocket proposal suggests the new plan is best suited for carrying GPS satellites.

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Spaceport backers cite a Georgia Southern University study that says the project will generate about $3 million in local tourism business and Bank of America predicts that the U.S. commercial space industry could grow to $3 trillion by 2047.

“Not only does Camden County have a highly trained military workforce that can transition upon retirement to employment into the commercial space industry, the surrounding area has transportation infrastructure, such as roads and rail that can provide support to the investment community,” a Spaceport Camden statement said.

The Kings Bay Naval Submarine base is in St. Marys near Camden’s southern border with Florida.

One of the ardent opponents of the spaceport, the Southern Environmental Law Center, expressed disappointment with the licensing decision.

“Virtually from the start, the FAA’s review of Spaceport Camden has been fraught with factual mistakes and legal errors,” senior attorney Brian Gist said. “We will carefully review the FAA’s decision to ensure that it fully complies with all applicable laws.”

Charles McMillan, director of natural resources for The Georgia Conservancy, said he’s not surprised the FAA approved the project, but he is dissatisfied with the Environmental Impact Statement process.

The next step for critics is to review the more than 60 pages of documents released Monday by the FAA that includes the agreement in place with federal agencies and other groups to minimize the potential damage launches might inflict.

McMillan said it is a positive sign that the FAA is making sure Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service remain in communication, since their critical eye will play a key role in protecting the environment and ecosystem.

“We want to go through to see how those (latest documents) are stitched together and coupled with the EIS process, particularly with a focus on the impacts to Cumberland Island, and the surrounding landscape,” McMillan said.

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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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