After years of delays, boosters of planned Georgia spaceport hope end is near

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)

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)

Supporters of a rocket launchpad off the coast of Georgia say they are confident their years-long attempt to gain federal approval will soon pay off.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to release a final environmental impact statement this month — a draft of which was first made public in 2018 — and approval would clear the way to grant a license to operate the proposed Spaceport Camden.

Camden County is pursuing the development of the spaceport on a 12,000-acre facility in Kingsland. Camden officials have been attempting since 2015 to secure a license from the FAA to move forward with the project. If all goes the county’s way, rockets — carrying satellites, supplies and possibly people — could launch into orbit from the coast of Camden within two years, said Steve Howard, the county’s administrator and Spaceport Camden project lead.

“This is a life-changing opportunity for the next generation,” Howard said. “It’s not been about the (rocket) launching that’s the catalyst, but all the opportunities around it — for jobs and educational opportunities. This would keep (skilled workers) in Georgia and working on Georgia soil.”

But enthusiasm from local residents and property owners has been mixed. Most vocal have been owners of property on nearby Little Cumberland Island, over which rockets would launch. Cumberland Island National Seashore, a national park, also is in the launch path.

Those residents and property owners say they would be the first community in the country to have rockets launched over their homes, and that the risk of something going wrong is too high.

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, but about 60,000 people visit the national seashore annually.

Within the past year, the county has picked up two lobbyists who formerly worked in Gov. Brian Kemp’s office — former chief of staff Tim Fleming and former deputy chief of staff Charlie Harper.

Camden County has paid Live Oak Public Strategies, a lobbying company registered to Fleming and Harper, $7,500 a month since February. The county has spent about $10 million trying to get the project approved since 2015.

Several factors have slowed the approval process. The FAA missed its initial self-imposed December 2019 deadline to finalize the environmental impact statement. In 2020, Camden County amended its request to allow the launch of small rockets, instead of the medium-to-large ones that were originally proposed.

At first, the FAA said it would have to restart the environmental impact process, but an executive order from then-President Donald Trump last year allowed the federal government to skip steps in an attempt to keep approvals — and the economy — going during the pandemic. President Joe Biden has since reversed that executive order, spurring U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock to weigh in, asking the FAA to again slow the process.

“This is not the time to cut corners on environmental review or cut out public participation in the evaluation of this project,” Warnock wrote in a letter to the agency. “The incoming FAA leadership should be given the opportunity to evaluate fully these issues with the benefit of public input before moving forward with a final decision.”

Another delay is due to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ need to determine whether the proposal violates any state laws put in place to protect the coastal environment.

DNR spokesman Josh Hildebrandt said the agency received more than 1,700 responses that are being considered in its determination, which he said the agency hopes to submit to the FAA by June 29. Most of the public comments were negative, and about 1,500 of the responses were form letters.

If the DNR objects to the FAA granting a site operator’s permit, the U.S. commerce secretary could insist the permit be given. If approved, each launch also would need to be OK’d by the FAA.

Despite the long slog to approval, Howard said he’s confident the FAA will greenlight the spaceport. He said the county is talking to five companies that are interested in launching from Camden.

“We’re ... really close, I think, to an outcome,” Howard said. “It’s been studied long enough. It’s time to get to a decision.”

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