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With a new administration, Spaceport Camden’s liftoff looks in doubt

By Tom Baxter

In his eerily prescient 1865 novel, “From the Earth to the Moon,” Jules Verne wrote about an intense rivalry between Florida and Texas to determine which state would be the site of the first moon launch. In the book, as in reality a century later, Florida won.

Jules Verne didn’t write about Georgia, but it, too, has at times cast an ambitious eye on the heavens.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock wrote the Federal Aviation Authority to request it delay the release, scheduled for June, of the environmental impact statement for the Spaceport Camden proposal in Georgia’s southeastern corner. This was the latest in a saga that goes all the way back to the dawn of the Space Age.

The National Aeronautical and Space Administration briefly considered Camden County as a potential location for its space center before settling on Cape Canaveral, Fla., about 200 miles south. The coastal county on the Florida border did get a piece of the action, however. In the early 1960s, the Thiokol Chemical Corporation bought an old plantation site where it built and test-fired what was then the largest rocket engine ever constructed.

When the Space Race cooled and the Vietnam War heated up, Thiokol refitted the plant site to produce explosives. On Feb. 3, 1971, an explosion at the plant killed 29 people and injured 50, most of them black women recruited from the area for the low-wage jobs, carried out under safety conditions that are shocking when you read about them today. The survivors, who held a 50th anniversary service earlier this year, have worked for years to establish a lasting memorial to the disaster, with only limited interest on the part of local or state government.

Thiokol, on the other hand, reopened the plant within months of the disaster. They sold it to Union Carbide, which continued to operate on the site for a number of years and still owns the property.

Where some saw an aging industrial site with a checkered history, others dreamed of a prime location for the burgeoning field of commercial spaceports. In 2012, the county development authority voted to begin permit applications for development of Spaceport Camden, and three years later the county bought an option to purchase the land. That turned out to be the easy part.

Promoters of the idea have pitched it as everything from an industrial hub to a tourist draw. A major selling point was that it could be used for ocean launches, with the slight problem that Cumberland Island and Little Cumberland Island are between the proposed site and the Atlantic. The site is also near the Kings Bay submarine base, which has put environmentalists and the U.S. Navy on the same page in their skepticism about the project.

The FAA has so far licensed 12 spaceports in eight states. Only a few have hopes of becoming glamour sites where multimillionaires get lifted into orbit. Most are slated to be the freight depots of the future, hurling commercial satellites into an increasingly crowded sky or ferrying equipment to space stations.

Late in 2019, in apparent reaction to the concerns raised by the Navy and others, the county changed its application to apply only for a license to launch smaller rockets like those used for low-orbit satellites. But while smaller rockets might cause smaller crashes, opponents of the project quickly responded, they crash more often — about 20 percent of the time, according to studies, compared to about 6 percent for medium-size rockets. That caused another delay in the already slow-grinding application process, this one potentially fatal.

Spaceport Camden’s promoters have hired well-connected lobbyists, commissioned favorable economic studies, and convinced Gov. Brian Kemp and others to endorse the plan, at least tacitly. But they didn’t clear the federal permit process before the change in administrations, something to which Warnock pointedly referred in his letter last week.

Meanwhile, 100 Miles and other coastal environmental groups opposed to the project have gathered more than 3,000 signatures on a petition to repeal the decision authorizing Camden County to move forward on the project. Even if the FAA does green-light the project this summer, it’s still a long way from lift-off.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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3 Comments

  1. Jim Renner May 25, 2021 9:27 am

    Good article, but it’s inaccurate to say, regarding existing licensed commercial spaceports, that “Most are slated to be the freight depots of the future, hurling commercial satellites into an increasingly crowded sky or ferrying equipment to space stations.” The record of performance clearly shows that most commercial spaceports are slated to be lonely white elephants. Commercial space operations are increasingly concentrated on the few well-established facilities around the world. Pacific Spaceport in Kodiak, Alaska is the only commercial spaceport not co-located with a Federal facility that has hosted commercial activity, and its average of <1 launch per year is unimpressive.Report

    Reply
  2. Steve Weinkle May 25, 2021 9:54 am

    Camden’s plan hit roadblocks they never anticipated. At various times, Camden has misled the FAA, the National Park Service, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. They’ve kept the public in the dark while making wild promises of riches to come. All without substantiation. Had the FAA performed proper due diligence in 2015-2016, this project would never have gotten off the ground, and millions would have been saved. If the spaceport were justified on its merits, it wouldn’t need all the lobbyists and politicians’ influence. They’ve downsized their plans and shrunk their expectations (except for the promised riches) when each obstacle was finally addressed. Yet the fundamental problem remains: Spaceport Camden would be the first time the FAA, Air Force, or NASA have ever intentionally launched rockets over a visitor-active National Park property, US private citizens, and private property the spaceport doesn’t control. No spaceport launches over economically valuable tidewaters and marshes. No other spaceport jeopardizes an American Designated Wilderness area. However, despite their knowledge of dozens of rocket failures, the FAA has a habit of approving spaceports for hypothetical rockets that meet theoretical environmental parameters while they hope for the best. They have allowed other approved projects to morph into monstrously dangerous affairs. The SpaceX Texas operation originally required $3 million 3rd-party liability insurance. The number is now $198 million, and no one lives downrange! But none of those pose the risk to the public and public resources that Spaceport Camden does. Meanwhile, Camden’s Spaceport Project Leader, Steve Howard has been caught job hunting out of state three times in the past three years. He gets it, even if the elected officials don’t.Report

    Reply
  3. Barbra Robson May 30, 2021 5:08 pm

    What a wonderful, inciteful, fulsome piece on a plan with huge holes. It takes an experience journalist with a long memory and confidence to produce this sort of reportage. Kudos!Report

    Reply

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