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.