FAA to take another look at Spaceport Camden after plans downsized

    A representation of what the landing pad could look like at the proposed Spaceport Camden. The FAA announced this week it is requiring another environmental review on the scaled-down project. Camden County/Submitted

    The Federal Aviation Administration is set to require a new environmental review for a scaled-down proposal to launch rockets off coastal Georgia, creating a new hurdle for Camden County’s eight-year quest to create a Spaceport.

    The federal agency announced Tuesday it will require Camden County to prepare another draft of an Environmental Impact Statement for its prpoposed spaceport, a controversial project local officials say will bring tourism and other economic benefits to the region. Environmental groups and other critics have railed against the potential safety hazards posed by the project.

    The revised environmental study requirement comes after the county downsized the rockets it plans to launch in its new license application in December to about the size of a mini-fridge. 

    The project’s scope shrank after the FAA raised concerns about how the county could safeguard people who live near the proposed launch site. The U.S. Navy, which operates Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay about 10 miles away near the Florida border, also expressed national security concerns.

    Environmental groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association, One Hundred Miles and the Southern Environmental Law Center asked the FAA for another ecological review on the revised project. The groups are worried rocket launches could damage nearby Cumberland Island National Seashore.

    “Small rockets fail at a much higher rate than medium to large rockets, so the FAA must now consider the environmental impacts of these risky, unproven vehicles,” said Brian Gist, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Given the enormous risks Spaceport Camden poses to public health, private property and Cumberland Island, this is not the time for shortcuts and half-measures.”  

    Camden’s revised plans call for smaller rockets as county officials aim to take part in the private space industry that includes satellites and potentially space tourism, suborbital travel and mining asteroids. The county first asked federal regulators to allow rockets as big as 230-foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9.

    Camden officials continued to express confidence in getting the project off the ground and said this week they’ve gained momentum now that the FAA is only asking the county for environmental and policy information.

    Camden taxpayers are on the hook for about $8 million so far, betting the Spaceport will one day generate a return on investment.

    “Today’s FAA release puts us one step closer to retaining the title of the Gateway to Space and bringing high tech opportunities to rural Georgia,” said Steve Howard, Camden’s administrator. “We will be continuing to work in parallel with the FAA, and we are looking forward to the next steps that have been outlined in the release. We hope for the project to move swiftly and smoothly in the upcoming months.”

    If approved, the spaceport would be one of 12 sites licensed in the U.S. to launch privately owned rockets. Located on a roughly 12,000-acre industrial property south of Brunswick, the county planned for the spaceport to attract tourists to watch rockets like the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch until it abruptly changed course late last year.

    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.