Economic boon or ‘sonic boom’? Camden Co. residents split on spaceport

Carol Ruckdeschel walks along the shore of Cumberland Island, which sits across the Intracoastal Waterway from the site of a proposed spaceport in Camden County. Maya T. Prabhu/

For nearly 45 years, Carol Ruckdeschel has lived, mostly off the land, in the northern part of Cumberland Island.

The self-taught biologist who moved to the island as hired help for Coca-Cola heir Sam Candler and his family now runs a natural history museum adjacent to her home, within spitting distance of the small Baptist church where John F. Kennedy Jr. was married in 1996.

But soon, Ruckdeschel said, she fears she will hear the monthly “sonic boom” of small private rockets being shot into space from a proposed launching pad just across the Intracoastal Waterway.

“I’ve never heard one before,” she said to Randy Brantley, standing on Cumberland’s shore, looking across the waterway to the site of the proposed spaceport. “Have you?”

Brantley, who retired from the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, said he had.

“You can feel it here,” he said, stretching his hand across the center of his chest.

Ruckdeschel and Brantley, a St. Marys resident, are among those living on the state's southern coast who have concerns about what could become Spaceport Camden, a proposed 12,000-acre facility at the end of Harriets Bluff Road.

The land, now owned by Bayer CropScience, has been a manufacturing depot for insecticides, chemicals and trip flares over the years. Now the federal government will decide whether it will allow satellites, supplies and possibly people to be launched into orbit from the property.

Officials believe the actual spaceport would need only 400 acres, with the remaining 11,000-plus serving as a buffer zone. The site, which in 1965 served as the test location for the world’s largest rocket engine, already is developed with roads, water, sewer, runway and other industrial amenities.

Steve Howard, Camden County’s administrator and Spaceport Camden project lead, said several private space companies have expressed interest in launching rockets in the county.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” he said.

KINGSLAND, GA - APRIL 11, 2018: Camden County resident Kevin Lang, center, holds a graphic showing a model explosion pattern from a FAA study of a Falcon One Rocket during a public hearing to discuss during a public hearing about a potential site for a spaceport in Kingsland, Georgia. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Enthusiasm among local residents is mixed, based on comments made during a public hearing hosted this week by the Federal Aviation Administration.

About 100 people showed up to the county's Public Services Authority Recreation Center on Wednesday to comment on a draft environmental impact statement the FAA released last month. A second public hearing was held Thursday.

Opponents cited drawbacks, including launching rockets over homes and disturbing endangered animals. Supporters pointed to benefits of diverse jobs and bolstering the area’s economy.

Residents living along Harriets Bluff Road also have varying opinions on the possibility of having rockets launch from their backyard.

One of those residents, Jackie Eichhorn, said she doesn’t believe Camden County is the best place in Georgia for a spaceport, and she urged the FAA to consider other locations.

But her neighbor Patrick Wiley said any potential rumbling from rocket launches is better than the previous types of companies housed on the land.

“I’d rather have a little bit of noise once in a while than have chemicals driving down the road all the time,” he said. “Plus, it will help the economy.”

The space industry worldwide in 2016 brought in about $330 billion, an amount that has held steady in recent years, according to the Colorado-based Space Foundation. That number appears to have plateaued after growing annually from about $108 billion in 2005 to $330 billion in 2014.

Supporters said they hope opening a spaceport in Camden will bring some of that money to Georgia. Many times, companies bring the scientists with them who will develop and launch the rockets, but it’s the impact on supporting aerospace businesses that officials think will boost the local economy.

“The spaceport will bring in jobs that will help support the tax base,” County Commissioner Ben Casey said. “We’re pushing not only (for companies) to launch here, but also to manufacture here.”

The public can review the environmental impact statement through June 14 online and in person at the Camden County, St. Marys, Brunswick-Glynn County and St. Simons Island public libraries. Both the residents and the county asked the FAA to extend the 45-day comment period to 90 days.

The FAA will then review the public response and issue a final environmental impact statement at some point in the following months. Camden County still would have to clear several steps, including a separate safety review, before it could be awarded a permit for the project.

Since 2014, Camden County has spent about $3.5 million exploring the concept of a spaceport, with much of that money going toward studies and other preparation for the environmental impact statement.

They say location is the Camden site’s strength. Launching over the Atlantic Ocean, from a little-inhabited corner of coastal Georgia, mitigates on-ground damage and death if a launch goes awry.

But, like Ruckdeschel, most residents on Cumberland Island and Little Cumberland Island aren’t keen on the idea of rockets flying over their homes.

Little Cumberland Island has about 100 parcels split among about 60 families, though very few people live there year-round. Cumberland Island has a handful of year-round residents, Ruckdeschel included, but about 60,000 people visit the national seashore annually.

“We would be the first community in the history of the United States to be directly under the path of a rocket,” Little Cumberland Island property owner Rebecca Dopson Lang said.

Her husband, Kevin Lang, said he was frustrated residents have not been shown data on what would happen if an explosion occurs.

“If someone wanted to launch a rocket directly over your home, but refused to share the detailed analysis of what happens when a rocket explodes, how would you feel about it?” he asked during one of the FAA hearings. “This is not a matter of inconvenience, it’s a matter of obliteration.”

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