FAA approves commercial launch pad off Georgia coast

Two Glynn County residents fill out comment cards during a public hearing to discuss the Federal Aviation Administration’s recently released environmental impact study about the potential site for a spaceport in Kingsland. (Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Two Glynn County residents fill out comment cards during a public hearing to discuss the Federal Aviation Administration’s recently released environmental impact study about the potential site for a spaceport in Kingsland. (Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

After years of delays, the Federal Aviation Administration has approved the construction of a commercial launch pad off the coast of Georgia.

Since 2015, Camden County, in the southeast corner of Georgia, has sought approval from the FAA to build Spaceport Camden, a proposed 12,000-acre facility in Kingsland.

The FAA on Monday approved a site operator’s license for the spaceport, which will allow Camden County to purchase the land where the project would be built and begin to construct the facility.

Supporters of the project say Spaceport Camden would boost the local economy while opponents are concerned about launching rockets over homes, wildlife and the Cumberland Island National Seashore.

Steve Howard, Camden County’s administrator and the Spaceport Camden project lead, said the FAA’s decision makes the county a “gateway to space.”

“This once in a generation opportunity will provide a new frontier of economic prosperity for Camden, the region and the state of Georgia,” Howard said in a statement. “Georgia is part of the new space race, and we will become one of the leaders.”

Spaceport officials are courting private companies to launch small rockets — sending satellites, supplies and possibly people into orbit — up to 12 times a year from the site, which has been a manufacturing depot for insecticides, chemicals and trip flares over the years. The FAA will also have to approve each future launch before rockets would be seen leaving the coast.

Officials said the spaceport would need only 400 acres, with the remaining 11,000-plus serving as a buffer zone. The site already is developed with roads, water, sewer, runway and other industrial amenities from when Bayer CropScience and Union Carbide operated there. The spaceport could use county money to construct the launchpad, control center and welcome center, or partner with a private company to build the facilities.

The federal approval comes as opponents are awaiting a decision from a Camden County Superior Court judge that would stop the county from purchasing the former Union Carbide property. Two Camden County residents filed a lawsuit attempting to block the purchase until a local probate court can verify the nearly 4,000 Camden County residents who signed a petition calling for voters to decide if officials should purchase the property for the launch site.

During a hearing last Friday, a judge said a decision to block the property purchase would be made this week.

Jim Goodman, one of the Camden County residents suing to stop the land purchase, said he initially supported the spaceport. However, over the years, as he’s learned more about the project, Goodman decided the money spent on the spaceport isn’t worth the potential damage it could cause the environment.

“This is not an economic boon for Camden County,” Goodman said. “And it was revealed that there were going to be serious issues and threats to hair and hide; fur and fin; scale, feather and beak and even the soil of this beloved county.”

The petition was submitted Dec. 14 and, according to state law, the court has 60 days to verify the signatures and then another 90 days to set a ballot referendum.

Camden County has spent about $10 million since 2015 exploring the concept of a spaceport, with much of that money going toward paying consultants, funding studies and doing other preparation necessary for an environmental impact statement, which outlines the impact the project will have on the surrounding environment.

Barring a court intervention, Camden County will now begin the process of purchasing the property, building the spaceport and lining up companies that want to launch their rockets from Georgia’s coast. The construction is expected to take 15 months.