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Questions, Hope Surround Proposed Camden County Spaceport

Jim Renner, a Little Cumberland Island landowner, has concerns about the proposed spaceport in Camden County.
Jim Renner, a Little Cumberland Island landowner, has concerns about the proposed spaceport in Camden County.
Credit Emma Hurt / WABE

Camden County, Georgia, right on the border with Florida, has a big idea for its future. Its leaders have spent millions trying to get a license from the FAA to launch rockets from a spaceport they don’t yet have.

County officials are confident this will be an economic boon, but not everybody’s convinced.

After the release of the draft environmental impact statement an unprecedented 15,000 comments were submitted, according to the FAA. The vast majority were form letters from advocacy groups. Previous spaceport draft statements had received hundreds.

The environmental evaluation process is designed to make sure the proposal is in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, after which the FAA will make a decision about a launch site operator license.

That draft proposes rocket launch trajectories over Cumberland Island and its neighbor, Little Cumberland Island. The islands are mostly undeveloped and the larger is managed by the National Park Service as a protected National Seashore.

One of the rocket launch trajectories proposed in the draft environmental impact statement for Spaceport Camden. (Credit: Federal Aviation Administration)

Both islands have private residences. None of the 11 spaceports with launch operator licenses in the U.S. have launch paths over residences, according to industry experts.

The FAA declined to confirm that statistic, but said, at its permitted sites, the agency “assures that the possibility of a casualty as a result of a launch is less than 1 in 10,000 launches and that the risk to any particular individual is less than 1 in a million.”

The Debate

Jim Renner is one of about 80 Little Cumberland Island landowners. On a Little Cumberland beach looking across the marsh, Renner could imagine the scene with a spaceport.

“So we’ve got people who have their houses here facing west,” he said. “And there’s the spaceport right there. I mean it’s right there. All the lights, all the noise, all the exhaust gases, everything would be visible, and audible and smell-able from here.”

Rebecca Lang, a second-generation Little Cumberland landowner, said it feels like an unprecedented threat.

“Nothing’s ever popped up like this,” she said. “There’s never been a greater threat to this place than the spaceport.”

But it’s not that simple to everyone. To some, the project means jobs.

Georgia’s entire Congressional delegation has come out in support of the project for that reason.

Jannie Everett runs the Thiokol Memorial Project museum in Kingsland, and said she’s hearing both sides of the debate.

“There are some people that want the jobs. They want us to move on, and progress,” she said. “Then you have the other people saying oh no, we already had one big accident. It’s a safety problem for them—if a rocket goes up and a Challenger happens.”

Everett’s mother was injured in a 1971 explosion at the Thiokol Chemical Company factory in Woodbine. About 30 died in the explosion, which happened on the very site Camden is proposing for the spaceport.

Click here to learn more about the environmental contamination at the proposed spaceport site >>

In the 1960s, Thiokol had actually tested solid fuel rocket motors at the location as well. Ultimately, NASA decided to go with liquid rocket fuel, and Thiokol pivoted to pesticide and munitions production.

Steve Howard, Camden County Administrator, stands near the proposed site for Spaceport Camden. (Molly Samuel/WABE)

Camden County’s administrator Steve Howard has been spearheading the project.  He said the idea is to keep more young talent at home.

“This gives them hope,” he said. “This gives them an opportunity to build for the future and that’s really what’s most exciting about this project.”

The Project

The County is about 6 years and more than $5 million into the process so far, though they haven’t gotten a launch license yet and haven’t released a business plan.

James Coughlin, executive director of the county’s Joint Development Authority – which is working to recruit prospective businesses for the spaceport – said it’s going well.

“The companies are contacting us in advance of the spaceport license,” he said. “It’s something tangible. We’re talking actual physical space and jobs, as opposed to hypothetical.”

Coughlin said the county is talking to four unnamed companies right now.

“Some of these companies talking to us didn’t exist a year ago,” he said.

Ultimately, he said the county is committed to doing this project in a fiscally and environmentally responsible way.

“It’s a part of every conversation we have with companies: what is your safety plan? How do you mitigate risk? Just like it would be if it was an airport or anything else.”

Everett questions why the taxpayers are fronting the funds in the meantime.

Jannie Everett runs the Thiokol Memorial Project, a Camden County museum honoring the victims and first responders involved in a chemical explosion in Woodbine in 1971. It happened on the same site proposed for Spaceport Camden. (Emma Hurt/WABE)

“People are saying jobs, jobs, jobs. How many jobs? Who’s the contractor? If we invest money, then our children when we’re gone are going to be saddled with paying that debt. Who’s going to pay for this?” she said. “What are we going to, build everything around a pipe dream?”

In fact, the country is littered with failed spaceport projects. That’s according to Tom Matula, a space industry consultant.

“These ideas come and go but you have to look at the economics,” he said.

One example he referenced was the Oklahoma Burns Flat Spaceport. It received a license from the FAA in 2006 but still hasn’t launched a rocket, despite millions in tax incentives and government funds.

Matula said the Camden County site has always seemed like a poor choice, particularly because of the potentially high insurance costs.

“Companies that launch private rockets need to have insurance and the insurance is based on how much you’re going to have to pay in terms of cleanup if there’s an accident,” he said. “If one of the rockets should have an accident during launch and destroy some homes or damage the seashore that’s going to be very expensive.”

To Little Cumberland landowners, the liability goes beyond what insurance would even cover.

“We can’t rebuild the damage this could cause,” said Lang. “Insurance doesn’t cover live oaks and migrating shorebirds.”

Jackie Eichhorn, who lives in Harriett’s Bluff, right off the road to the spaceport, said if the project goes through, she will move.

“It would just mean the county would have taken a turn in a very bad direction,” she said. “I think it’s going to come to real financial difficulty if they keep pushing it forward. I love [the area] too much to see it happen.”

Nick Altiser, on the other hand, is excited about it. He graduated from high school in Camden County in 2012 and now works at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.

“There’s not a lot of opportunity for anyone in the STEM field [in Camden County] beyond the Naval base,” he said. “Spaceport Camden offers everyone in Southeast Georgia, Northeast Florida and even in the Atlanta area a chance to stay home and work on their careers.”

Camden County’s Howard called the project an opportunity for the county to “diversify,” which there is a precedent for. He referenced its past transition from a mill town to a military town. “There’s risk in doing something and risk in doing nothing,” he said.

Renner’s response?

“An astronaut may make the decision to take that risk. The owner of a rocket company may choose to take the financial risk,” he said. “We’re uninvolved in this. Why should we have to bear any risk from this project?”

The Comments

The Department of Interior submitted 15 pages of comments to the FAA raising questions about the project. Gary Ingram is the National Parks Service superintendent of the Cumberland Island National Seashore. He said he has concerns about environmental impacts to the park, as well as impacts to the about 60,000 tourists who visit every year.

The draft environmental impact statement suggested that some people may need to evacuate areas beneath the launch trajectories, but Ingram said they want more clarity on details.

“It’s a special place, so we do everything we can to keep it as pristine and welcoming as we possibly can and we just need to know what the effects would be of these rockets they want to launch,” he said.

Ingram said he supports economic development initiatives in Camden County but wants to ensure the park’s protection. “This has the potential to have direct negative effects to the park, but I want some scientific evidence to show that,” he said. He’s looking to the final environmental impact statement for that information.

The Nature Conservancy owns property near the proposed spaceport site. It plans to re-open a hunting lodge on its Camden County property, known as Cabin Bluff, and plans to open some of the land to the public. Deron Davis, the group’s Georgia director, said the region has a lot of conservation value, which is why the group purchased there.

“We want to really encourage all kinds of decision makers to think of it as a largescale conservation corridor and as an asset to the community and to the broader geography, not necessarily quick turnaround business propositions,” he said.

“There’s a theory they’re going to be gaining something, certainly. But what might you also be losing? And is what you are losing perhaps going to harm you in some other way?”

Another neighbor with comments and questions? The Navy, because of its nuclear submarine base, King’s Bay, about 10 miles south of the proposed launch site.

Possible evacuations could also pose a problem for King’s Bay’s classified missions, and tourists at Cumberland Island.

Commenters including the Navy and the Department of the Interior asked for more detail on launch failure probability. The draft environmental impact statement gave a failure probability between 2.5-6%, which, for 12 launches a year breaks out to a failure every 3.33 years, according to the Department of the Interior’s comments.

The Navy wrote: “[The Draft Environmental Impact Statement] does not address risk concerns or probabilities related to failed vehicle launch and landings….What is the probability a failed launch or landing will occur outside of the DEIS closure boundary?”

Interior asked about the potential “for flaming debris to fall on land.”

Edward Ellegood, a space industry analyst, said reliable data on failures for vertical launch rockets will be tricky. “The launch vehicles that would operate from Camden are new,” he said. “They don’t have a flight history so there’s not a lot of analysis that can be done to prove their safety.”

Plus, because vertical launch rockets don’t have wings, they can’t be steered, he pointed out. “Even the most reliable rockets fail at some point, like an aircraft would, but an aircraft can be steered.”

Despite the risks, Camden officials remain optimistic and continue to pay consultants to push the project forward. The county has named it a top policy priority.

Even if they don’t get the license, Coughlin said they still hope to recruit space-related industries, like manufacturing. He said companies still seem interested in the site’s geography. “Even without the launch component, we’re still desirable,” he said.