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Clock ticking on comment period on plan to launch rockets over Cumberland Island

David Pendered
spaceport, Camden, trajectories

By David Pendered

The clock is ticking on the public comment period for a planned spaceport on the Georgia coast. Plans call for privately owned rockets to be launched from a site near the mouth of the Satilla River, soar at 30,000 feet over Cumberland Island, and continue toward or into outer space.

spaceport, trajectories

Rockets launched from the proposed spaceport in Camden County would soar over a portion of Cumberland Island at an altitude of some 30,000 feet, according to the FAA statement. Credit: faa.gov

The Federal Aviation Administration endorses the plan, according to its draft environmental impact statement. June 14 is the deadline for public comment.

The proposed spaceport has traveled at rocket speed in three years.

In 2015, Camden County officials listed it in the county’s long-range plan to promote economic development. In 2017, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law that clears the way for the spaceport. In recent weeks, it has gained support from the FAA and Georgia’s two Republican senators, Johnny Isakson and David Perdue. Several Republican candidates for governor support the planned spaceport.

Camden County officials are reaching into an old playbook in their effort to boost their local economy by wooing manufacturers in the space industry.

In the early 1960s, Thiokol Chemical Corporation, Inc. chose Camden as the location for its rocket program for reasons including the county’s workforce and “community attitude,” according to a memorial website. At the time, the company had been working for years in the defense industry and, previously, rocket scientists had decided Thiokol’s signature product was a promising rocket fuel.

In 1965, the company launched the world’s most powerful rocket from its Camden County manufacturing site, according to the memorial website. The project didn’t move forward for a number of reasons.

Fast forward to present day, and the FAA statement observes:

  • “The need for the proposed commercial space launch site is to further the goals of Camden County as established in the County’s Strategic Plan 2018, 2023, 2032 to create a strong regional economy with diverse job opportunities based on four major pillars of economic growth and sustainment, one of which is developing a world-class spaceport that would also attract businesses to support its operation.”

In evaluating the spaceport’s environmental impact, the FAA statement acknowledges the spaceport would alter the pristine nature of the area – but not enough to warrant rejecting the project.

For example, the noise of a rocket launch could cause some listeners to become irritated when their moment of respite on Cumberland Island and other nearby areas is interrupted, according to the statement.

Plans call for launching 12 rockets a year, and testing 12 engines a year at full thrust by firing up the engine while keeping the rocket firmly attached to the ground. Each rocket could weigh up to 1.5 million pounds and stand up to 250 feet tall. Here’s a snippet of the statement’s observation about noise:

  • “Noise levels during launches, landings, and static fire events would be quite high in areas surrounding Spaceport Camden, but each event type would occur only up to 12 times per year….
  • “Noise at Cumberland Island National Seashore would be of particular concern because of the expectation among visitors of a completely natural soundscape…. Although existing research does not support prediction of a specific percentage of visitors that would be highly annoyed by the noise of rocket operations, disruption of the natural soundscape, particularly in the designated Cumberland Island Wilderness Area, could degrade the positive experiences of visitors to the island. …
  • “However, the noise events would be infrequent and FAA does not expect operational activities to result in significant adverse impacts.”

Note to readers: The FAA statement says: “FOR FURTHER INFORMATION: Written comments on this document should be directed to Ms. Stacey M. Zee, FAA Environmental Specialist, Spaceport Camden EIS, c/o Leidos, 2109 Air Park Road SE, Suite 200 Albuquerque, NM 87106, or e-mail at [email protected]

 

spaceport, state locator map, edit

Georgia’s proposed spaceport would be located in Camden County, near the Florida border and east of I-95. Credit: faa.gov

 

spaceport, locator map

The proposed spaceport in Camden County would be built on land the county would buy from the Union Carbide Corp. and Bayer CropScience, according to the FAA statement. Credit: faa.gov

 

 

 

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David Pendered
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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13 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Micah McLain May 1, 2018 10:18 am

    Has there been any discussion of/research on the affects on Cumberland wildlife? I assumed most folks would be less concerned with tourists being slightly inconvenienced than the safety of the protected animals on and around the island.

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    Hyde Post May 1, 2018 10:33 am

    Below this is a link to a good rendering from a citizen’s group opposed to the spaceport detailing the many reasons why this is a terrible idea. There is a reason why spaceports are usually built to shoot rockets over areas where no people live (like the ocean). Because they sometimes blow up and rain debris down. And the Georgia Legislature has decided that if that happens, neither the spaceport nor the rocket owners shall be held liable.

    And then there is the problem of building a spaceport that no one uses. Like this one.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/03/new-mexicos-sad-bet-on-space-exploration/554243/

    http://www.prweb.com/releases/2018/03/prweb15280864.htm

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    Emil Walcek May 1, 2018 4:27 pm

    This Georgia resident has been following the efforts of Spaceport Camden for years and support this development 100%. Growing interest and application for space-based technology has been well documented.

    Camden County, GA is ideal from the standpoints of:

    – logistics – Will thrust GA into a space-based national & international data and goods logistics hub
    – Safety – A proven Rocket-ready location with (ideal) over-ocean launches
    – Economy – Spawning of GA jobs, industry and supporting businesses
    – Education – Encourage STEM education + jobs. Keep GA Tech Engineers in GA!

    These are but a few of the substantial factors that surely overwhelm provincial interests against progressive development.

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      Jim Renner May 1, 2018 4:36 pm

      Except all of your assertions are false or, at best, wild speculation. No commercial spaceport has ever provided jobs or attracted industry. There are no ‘safe’ or ‘proven’ rockets that would launch from Camden, only unproven new vehicles. Camden is risking our most precious resource on a gamble that will bankrupt the county.

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        Emil Walcek May 2, 2018 2:11 pm

        Really? How about looking to our neighbor to the south for the evidence I’m sure you seek… http://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/commentary/fl-pmoped-florida-space-economic-engine-20170309-story.html

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          steve weinkle May 6, 2018 11:16 am

          Emil,
          Surely you know that Kennedy/Canaveral is subsidized to the tune of hundreds of million of tax dollars each year? And as to the benefits, you probably do not realize that the median Family income of Camden County ALREADY exceeds Brevard County, our costs of living are LOWER, and our crime rate is substantially lower than Atlanta or Brevard. Our own eyes can see that non-NASA spaceports languish with rare job opportunities and perpetual subsidies to keep the doors open.

          Camden residents just got an eye-opener this week when their property tax assessments jumped 9% to 38% because our politicians have been stargazing since 2012 instead of developing our real assets like Cumberland Island National Seashore tourism and Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base.

          Florida’s Shiloh Commercial Spaceport was stopped the same year that Camden politicians started spending money here. Senator Nelson said plainly enough that the spaceport was not needed. Spaceport America’s CEO spoke about operational commercial spaceflights: “It’s just not going to happen overnight — well, in the course of humanity, it will be overnight, but in the course of a lifetime, it may take longer.” CNN 08/17/2015. Wallops spaceport, with a wider range of trajectories than Camden, has launched a total of 14 rockets from two launch pads since 2006. So much for the so-called “demand.”

          It’s beyond me how you can believe it is Camden County taxpayers’ obligation, or to their benefit, to make commercial space operations feasible or to participate in a JobsScam that’s backed by hype, and nothing else.

          And the FAA Draft EIS did not approve the spaceport. The entire document was carelessly assembled with enough errors, omissions, contradictions, and fictions to require a complete reboot. Camden’s citizens have learned from the spaceport scams in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Alaska and Texas. Simply put: If the industry needs a spaceport, let them pay for it.

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      Joyce Murlless May 7, 2018 12:33 pm

      Re your comments on “Safety”: [1] This site does not and cannot provide over-ocean launches. Rather it provides only over-inhabited-island launches. No place else in the US are rockets launched directly over an inhabited area. Add to that, that the pie-shaped hazard zone shown in the draft EIS is half the width of hazard zones indicated in other sites for the smallest rocket being considered in this permit application. If you double the width, it includes Jekyll Island and/or at least half of Cumberland Island National Seashore. And the draft EIS says, amazingly, that homeowners and campers would be permitted to remain in the hazard zone.

      [2] The location you call “proven Rocket-ready” actually was the site of a deadly explosion in 1971, killing 29 people and injuring 50 more. A friend of mine lost two cousins in that economic boom. The day after the explosion the plant’s manager told our Governor that a building fire caused the blast, but the material being processed was not normally explosive. J. B. Galloway stated, “It’s a puzzle to us and news that it would even explode.” His obvious misunderstanding of what he and his neighbors were working with stemmed from mis-communication by the Federal Government.

      [3] You should be aware that there are three (3) known toxic waste sites on this property. The boundaries of land (under a purchased option to Camden County) have been carefully drawn so that Camden will avoid having to clean up 2 of the 3. Notice the outline of the proposed Spaceport property, particularly the almost rectanglular cutout between the launch site and the landing zone. That toxic waste would remain in place. Or perhaps the extremely low sound vibrations involved in rocket engine tests and launches would travel through our sandy soils and dislodge those toxic wastes so they could slowly (?) migrate to the nearby salt marsh. And I will remind you that the livelihoods of all who deal with fishing, shrimping, and seafood depend on Georgia’s healthy salt marsh.

      Re your Logistics, economy and education — If you look at a map of Georgia you will find other Georgia locations where a rocket launch hazard zone would not attempt to propel 10,000-40,000 pounds over people’s houses a mere 4-6 miles away. They could launch from near the little town of Crescent, send rockets over the north end of Blackbeard and the south end of St. Catherine’s and impact far fewer inhabited structures — if just the fewer number of people’s houses is enough to mitigate the danger — which is exactly what the draft EIS says.

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        Emil Walcek May 7, 2018 4:16 pm

        Sorry, Joyce,
        I’m agreeing to disagree with your personal assessment of the stafety issue [1]

        [2] The 1971 tragedy you reference had nothing to do with rockets or space, but occurred during use of the repurposed facility to manufacture flares to support troops in Vietnam.

        [3] Could your reference to the toxic waste site have anything to do with a 2016 Settlement Reached to Clean Up Toxic Waste Site in Brunswick? – where “DOJ & EPA announced that Honeywell Intl and Georgia Power agreed to clean up the 760-acre saltwater marsh at the LCP Chemicals Superfund Site in Brunswick and to pay an estimated $28.6 million to “remove and isolate contaminated sediments in the marsh and to monitor the long-term effectiveness of the work.”

        [4] Yes, of course, “not in my backyard!”

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          Jim Renner May 7, 2018 9:34 pm

          No, the reference to “toxic waste” pertains to the Union Carbide site that Camden County has paid almost $1 million for an option to buy. Technically, the UC site does not have “toxic waste”, but it does harbor a capped hazardous waste landfill, and numerous areas contaminated by unexploded ordnance, munitions waste, and aldicarb manufacturing waste. The site is so contaminated that UC and the GAEPD imposed a restrictive covenant on the site to prevent any future use of the site that would expose people to contamination. Camden must think they will somehow be able to extinguish the covenant, but, since it’s not even mentioned in the DEIS, it’s more likely that Camden’s due diligence is so poor they are unaware it exists. The County’s planning is so bad that they located the launch pad directly on top of one of the munitions-contaminated areas. They have an incredibly naive idea of how much effort and money will be required to address contamination issues.

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            Emil Walcek May 8, 2018 9:49 am

            Thx. Did some research. Camden Co seems to officially be aware of the issue on the UC property. According to the GA EPD Hazardous Waste Corrective Action Plan (2011)
            Union Carbide property is 4,011 acres. Landfill with contaminated and non-contaminated substances is 22 acres. Buffer zone includes another 36 acres. Property shall only be used for non-residential use, or for landfill, or digging, etc. Regular monitoring is mandated.
            In other words, contamination there is a very small part of a very large parcel. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere near it, but wouldn’t be opposed to putting the property as a whole into use to help local and state economies.

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    Robert Alan Scaringe May 7, 2018 8:44 am

    Steve,

    The EIS says the environmental impact is negligable, the risk is acceptable and the US government can now consider awarding a Spaceport license. The objections to the EIS I have seen have been technical nitpicking and not very relevant to the recommendation to proceed. I don’t live there, so my perspective is what is good for GA and the country. It is undeniable that launching over water from West to East (with earth’s rotation) is ideal for a US Spaceport. It is undeniable that launch services demand is increasing rapidly. Space X has reduced the cost of launch to Low Earth Orbit from $3-4 thousand per pound of payload to $640 per pound with the Feb. Falcon 9 Heavy launch. This is historic and near the nirvana cost per pound target of $500/p where every University and research lab, and earth monitoring application can afford to launch.

    This is not a new market. The global space industry is a $350 Billion, a market 4-5 times the size of the global film industry that has been so kind to GA. The payoff to southeast GA and the state of GA is not the jobs at the Spaceport. It is the manufacturing facilities that will locate near the Spaceport as Satellite and subsystem manufacturers understandably like to manufacture close to where they launch. Each manufacturing facility will attract hundreds of local suppliers that the FAA says is 3-5 the manufacturing investment. The economic benefit is low risk for SE GA with the opportunity for big economic payback for the area.

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    steve weinkle May 7, 2018 9:39 am

    Dear Bob,

    Sure, the Falcon Heavy can lower the cost to $700 per pound but only if you are launching its full payload of 116,000 pounds to orbit. That’s about 17,000 3U-cubesat college experiments on a single flight. Pretty ridiculous correlation you’re using to justify Spaceport Camden.

    You conveniently ignore the costs per pound on the Vector, Firefly, Rocket Lab and other startup launchers that are all quoting in excess of $60,000 for a 3U-cubesat to LEO if the rocket payload is maxed. The actual cost is even higher because the payload includes components like the dispenser that are not the satellite. (All of my figures come from the General Accounting Office 17-609 document dated October 2017). How many Georgia Tech satellites are waiting to pay? They are actually waiting in line for a free ELaNa program ride with NASA so Spaceport Camden will just be a down coast station for student rocket experiments. I can assure you that makes us all much more confident as our tax bills continue to rise to pay for it.

    Contrary to your unsupportable confidence, there is no existing business model indicating that even SpaceX can make money without substantial government subsidies of their operations. These startup rocket companies are burning investor money and someday, perhaps one or two, may survive to launch rockets for a profit. Do you support the State of Georgia guaranteeing the operating costs for Spaceport Camden since it seems that Georgia Tech and Atlanta area supporters are so keen on it?

    As to your kind explanation about orbits, most of the earth observation satellites are launched into polar or sun-synchronous orbits because that allows them to ‘see’ the same location on earth at least twice every day at the same time, thus they can do their work of looking for changes. Camden County cannot launch to those orbits. Planet has launched their existing satellite network on the Indian PSLV (POLAR launch vehicle). Rocket Lab has their own spaceport that is licensed to launch 120 times a year to pro-grade and polar orbits, something Spaceport Camden can never accomplish.

    As to the grand scheme of LEO internet connectivity, the satellite network may exist long before consumers can afford the phase-array antennas that are now affordable only for commercial users. Sure, someday they may be cheap enough for you and me to own one, but should Camden taxpayers be early adopters of launch pads for rockets that might someday launch satellites that have commercial value? Meanwhile, OneWeb has bought 21 launches on Russian Soyuz rockets to launch satellites made in Florida, and also with Virgin Galactic that launches its rocket from under a Boeing 747 and will not need a spaceport.

    And finally, the Draft EIS is junk and the FAA knows it. If you take a look at the updated Federal Permitting Dashboard, you will see that the FAA now anticipates the unusual step of reissuing the Draft EIS after ‘fixing’ it. Thus more cost to Camden taxpayers because after 2-1/2 years, the first DEIS was not compliant with the law. And all of that is before Camden pay lawyers to defend illegal launches over Cumberland Island and LCI.

    Only spaceport cheerleaders, politicians, and paid consultants could love Spaceport Camden. Didn’t this start off as a public/private partnership thing? Where’s the deep-pocketed partner? The Space industry surely hasn’t backed up the spaceport promoters where it really counts – with their own money.

    Just speaking facts, you know….

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      Chris Johnston May 7, 2018 12:47 pm

      The author is not a politician so he must be either a cheerleader or paid consultant; my bet is on the latter since he paints such a rosy scenario.

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