For The Record

Spaceport Camden launch delayed again as FAA extends license review

By: - September 29, 2021 7:41 pm

In the wake of two postponements, the Federal Aviation Administration has set a deadline of Nov. 3 for its final decision whether to grant a Spaceport Camden license. This rendering shows the launch control and payload processing centers at the spaceport. Courtesy Camden County

The Federal Aviation Administration postponed for at least another month a decision on a license for a controversial spaceport on the Georgia coast.

The federal agency in charge of reviewing the project dubbed Spaceport Camden now plans to reveal its decision by Nov. 3 with continuing consultations forcing plans beyond Thursday’s planned announcement.

It looked like the FAA would approve the operator’s license weeks after the agency indicated in June it favored allowing Camden County to build the launch facility after years of commissioners betting millions on the project.

The federal agency didn’t provide any details about the extended consultation process that also resulted in a two-month delay in July, saying only that it involves federal and state agencies and other stakeholders.

Charles McMillan, Georgia Conservancy Coastal director, said that another delay does not give him new hope that the FAA will reject the project. With so much at stake, it’s not uncommon for a project like Spaceport Camden to be pushed back in its last stages, said McMillan, whose organization opposes the project.

McMillan said that it’s likely the historic preservation review process continues and efforts continue to try to answer concerns raised by the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior over the threat that rocket explosions could pose to wildlife on nearby barrier islands.

“I don’t think I read too much into (the delay) because that’s sort of the normal course of agency consultation,” he said. “There does seem to be more coming out about an understanding of how they position this with respect to theoretical launch trajectories and rockets that have not yet been developed.”

“I do feel like there’s other things at play that could have a more substantive impact,” McMillan said.

Camden’s plans call for building a facility and launch pads that allow for as many as 12 commercial rocket launches annually over five years. The vision is scaled down to smaller vehicle launches from initial plans to launch rockets as big as the 230-foot-tall SpaceX Falcon 9.

Camden County residents and environmentalists opposing the project have warned of the hazards it 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, which includes satellites, space tourism, and attracting new businesses to southeast Georgia.

Wednesday’s news didn’t dampen Camden County Administrator Steve Howard’s optimism about the project eventually getting clearance.

“We understand the FAA is still working to make sure all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed and remain optimistic for a final decision on Spaceport Camden in a few weeks,” he said in an email.

Howard and other Camden County officials continue to stress the need for its spaceport, referencing a report commissioned by the Pentagon Defense Innovation Unit that said the U.S. needs more spaceports that provide vertical launches to meet the demands of space exploration

Consulting firm Quilty Analytics noted the stiff resistance from environmentalists and local residents that all vertical launch sites like Camden have encountered.  

“All of these sites are strategically placed adjacent to large bodies of water or in remote locations due to the fact that vertical launch vehicles drop one or more stages downrange, creating a hazard to life and property in the drop zones,” the report says. 

“Although the FAA has licensed numerous inland spaceports, these sites cannot support vertical launch unless the U.S. is willing to accept the risks associated with the uncontrolled reentry of rocket bodies into populated areas (which we believe is highly unlikely),” the report says.

Environmentalists continue to call for a more extensive environmental review that fully takes into account the types of rockets proposed for the Spaceport and their failure rates. 

“When Camden County changed the scope of the project that changed how the rockets operate, changes in how the trajectory works and how they handle controls on the rockets,” McMillan said. “And the technical details of the (Environmental Impact Statement) have not been publicly discussed or updated.”

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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.