In its quest to open a vertical launch spaceport, South Georgia’s Camden County has for years failed to provide the Federal Aviation Administration with safety information needed for its application, according to internal agency emails reviewed by WABE.
This comes after news Monday that the licensing process will be delayed indefinitely. The FAA was expected to release a major environmental report on the proposal this week, but two days prior, Camden County decided to amend its launch site operator license application. It now wants to only fly small rockets.
In multiple emails obtained through open records requests by the Southern Environmental Law Center, FAA staff expressed concern about how Camden’s originally proposed launches could be safe enough for the population beneath its proposed rocket trajectories, which would cross over two barrier islands. And up until at least October, the county had not alleviated those concerns.
The county has spent at least $7 million on the proposed spaceport since embarking on the project in 2012.
‘A Problem From The Very Beginning’
Eighty-three families own land and private homes on Little Cumberland, roughly 5 miles east of the proposed launch pad, and many have consistently voiced concerns about how a spaceport launch could safely happen over the island. Cumberland Island next door also has private residences and is largely controlled by the National Park Service as a protected National Seashore.
FAA staff also pointed out the plan to launch so close to overflight populations was unprecedented for the country’s vertical launch spaceports.
In an internal summary of the Camden project from 2017, FAA aerospace engineer Katie Branham wrote that “individual risk and overflight of Little Cumberland Island has been a problem from the very beginning.”
Nearly two years later, in March of 2019 Branham wrote the issue “has been mentioned many times now” and Camden is “refusing to address” the outstanding items.
In October 2019, the FAA formally informed Camden that the agency “continues to have concerns” about its launch site operator’s license application, which meant the county hadn’t given the FAA all necessary documents to get a spaceport license.
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One of the FAA’s concerns was how Camden would “control and manage the population in the vicinity of the proposed launch site, particularly on Little Cumberland Island,” and therefore, guarantee safe rocket launches for the uninvolved public.
The agency said the application was also missing an agreement with the local Coast Guard about how launches would be coordinated with ships and boats, and a report from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources about state environmental regulations.
“It’s been clear since the beginning that this site has had problems meeting the safety requirements under the FAA regulations,” said Brian Gist, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has criticized the proposal.
“In October the FAA notified Camden County that they hadn’t made the showing necessary to comply with the FAA regulations and in the intervening two months, it doesn’t appear that they have cured those deficiencies.”
The FAA did not respond to questions about whether Camden had resolved the concerns about Little Cumberland before the county requested to amend its application.
Originally, according to Branham at the FAA, Camden had considered relocating residents from the island, but that changed after vocal resistance from those landowners.
“Camden County never asked us to relocate,” said Kevin Lang, vice president of the Little Cumberland Island Homeowners Association. “The only discussion that we ever had with Camden County involving a spaceport was that they would construct a bunker on the island that we would be asked to go into the bunker during launches, which obviously we didn’t find to be appealing.”
In a news release published by the county Tuesday, Camden asserted that “public safety review performed to date” of the county’s original plan to launch and land medium-to-large rockets had proven that Camden’s original plan is safe.
“All our safety studies have put us well within compliance of anything happening out there,” Camden County Commissioner Gary Blount said in an interview earlier this year.
“If I thought it was putting those folks unnecessarily at risk I wouldn’t want to do it. I wouldn’t have a problem trading places with somebody out there,” he said.
But whether a launch would pass safety regulations under certain conditions doesn’t necessarily mean the site can guarantee those conditions. Specifically, if a safe launch depends on the number of people beneath a rocket trajectory, spaceport operators and rocket companies must have a plan to control how many people enter the area.
For Camden, that’s complicated, because there are private residences on both Little Cumberland and Cumberland Islands, regular commercial fishermen, and a National Park with campers and hikers beneath its proposed launch pads.
In 2018 after conducting its own safety analysis, another FAA aerospace engineer calculated that if more than 200 people were on Little Cumberland during a launch, certain launch vehicles would be unsafe and with 300 people on the island it would be difficult to launch anything.
After seeing this analysis, a manager in the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, Dan Murray wrote: “I think this confirms what we have been suspecting—that the number of people on the island is a critical factor in the utility of the site.”
Lang from Little Cumberland said Camden never made an agreement to coordinate with island homeowners during launches.
“With these casualty calculations, we’re talking about real people’s lives and people who have nothing to do whatsoever, who didn’t ask to have anything to do whatsoever with the proposed spaceport,” Lang said.
Another manager in the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, Pam Underwood, wrote in a December 2018 email:
“Bottom line: Camden County has no means by which to get and verify population data for two populated islands” the county proposes to launch nearby, she said.
“Without accurate population data [the FAA] can’t verify the validity of their launch site location review…or any subsequent launch license application for a vehicle operator in the future,” she said.
Nearly a year ago, another FAA employee Anne Moore wrote: “We are doing a lot of leg work to issue a launch site license that may never support a launch. Sigh.”
Camden County now wants to amend its application to only small launch vehicles, but the FAA emails, which predate the new request do reference how smaller rockets might affect things.
When conducting a safety analysis of Camden’s proposed trajectories, an FAA engineer pointed out that a smaller vehicle would reduce a casualty area, but that those smaller rockets could be less reliable and have a higher probability of failure.
That worries the Little Cumberland homeowners.
“One of the biggest risks to Little Cumberland Island is fire,” Lang said. “And it’s very likely the risk of fire will go up in the case of small launch vehicles because they’re going to fail more often and still going to be full of fuel.”
The FAA has stopped its evaluation of Camden’s proposed spaceport as it awaits more information from the county about its new amended application.
Camden officials have not responded to a request for comment on this story.