With looming decision on Georgia spaceport, locals brace for rockets overhead

Dick Parker, a North Carolina resident who owns property on Little Cumberland Island, looks across the Intracoastal Waterway to mainland Georgia, where Camden County officials hope to build a commercial rocket launchpad. Maya T. Prabhu/maya.prabhu@ajc.com

Dick Parker, a North Carolina resident who owns property on Little Cumberland Island, looks across the Intracoastal Waterway to mainland Georgia, where Camden County officials hope to build a commercial rocket launchpad. Maya T. Prabhu/maya.prabhu@ajc.com

LITTLE CUMBERLAND ISLAND — The few inhabitants of the 3-mile stretch that made up Little Cumberland Island in the 1960s were conservationists — people who wanted to ensure that the land covered in palmetto trees and pink fireweed flowers remained free from misuse and overdevelopment.

Nearly 60 years later, the homeowners and others residents say they are fighting to maintain the integrity of the island by opposing a proposed commercial launchpad that would put their homes — and parts of the Cumberland Island National Seashore — in the paths of rockets headed to space.

“We want people to be able to enjoy the beautiful and unspoiled nature and to make sure a rocket doesn’t explode over them and land in the marsh,” said Jim Renner, a St. Simons Island resident who owns property on Little Cumberland Island.

Since 2015, Camden County, in the southeast corner of Georgia, has sought approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to build Spaceport Camden, a proposed 12,000-acre facility at the end of Harriets Bluff Road in Kingsland. Delays at the request of both Camden County and the FAA have slowed the process over the years, but federal officials set a deadline of Nov. 3 to determine whether they will grant the county a site operator’s license.

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.

Camden County said there is up to a 20% failure rate of launching small rockets, but, according to FAA documents, “the county believes that the probability of a failure occurring that would have the potential to adversely affect the environment or public health and safety is a significantly lower percentage of the overall failure rate.”

From the beginning of the process, environmentalists, residents and some employees of the National Park Service have expressed concern over the idea of launching rockets over homes, wildlife and the Cumberland Island National Seashore.

But Steve Howard, Camden County’s administrator and the Spaceport Camden project lead, said the safety concerns are minor. Spaceport officials say the 20% failure rate was included in the application as a “worst-case scenario,” but they say the facility would only allow rockets with a proven track record for safe launches.

Howard said he is focused on an expected boost to the local economy.

“America needs Spaceport Camden,” he said. “And this is more than just a local, regional or state opportunity, it’s now a national one ... to ensure that America remains the leader in space. That’s critically important.”

A complex process

Several factors have slowed the approval process. The FAA missed its December 2019 deadline to finalize an environmental impact statement. In 2020, Camden County amended its request to allow the launch of small rockets, instead of the medium and 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 coronavirus pandemic. President Joe Biden has since reversed that executive order.

The FAA released the final environmental impact statement in June and set a Sept. 30 deadline to issue its decision on granting Camden County the license. It then extended its deadline to Nov. 3.

If the spaceport is approved, each launch would also have to be approved by the FAA.

Attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center say that declining to start the environmental impact process again with the smaller proposed rockets violates the licensing process.

“There are different risks that need to be analyzed and disclosed to the public,” said Brian Gist, a senior attorney with the SELC. “In our view, one of the challenges with this project is whether the public has the necessary information to understand what risks this project poses.”

The land where the proposed project would be built, now owned by Bayer CropScience and Union Carbide Corp., has been a manufacturing depot for insecticides, chemicals and trip flares over the years.

Officials believe the actual 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.

Little Cumberland Island homeowners have been among the loudest opponents of the project. The island, located about 5 miles from the proposed launch site, has 100 parcels split among about 60 families. Very few people live there year-round, and many live in other parts of the state, including metro Atlanta. Forty-five of the lots have homes on them.

Only 200 of the island’s 2,400 acres have been set aside for homes, and a small network of trails allows residents and visitors to navigate their way on the island. The rest is left untouched.

Cumberland Island also has only a handful of year-round residents, but about 60,000 people visit the national seashore annually. A fire on Cumberland Island or Little Cumberland Island has the potential to be catastrophic because there is no fire department and paths are difficult to navigate to reach people’s homes, residents said.

“I thought we had an understanding in America that our national parks were sacred,” said Kevin McMillen, resident and president of the Little Cumberland Island Homes Association. “I can’t understand how our local government, state government and federal government could use a national park as a debris field. Could you imagine them using Yellowstone (National Park) for something like this?”

‘Never about the launching’

There are currently 12 licensed spaceports in the country, and there have been more than 40 commercial space launches in 2021. Three happened in the past six weeks. FAA statistics indicate commercial spaceflight has the potential to be a growing industry. There were 39 launches in 2020, compared with 11 in 2016.

The space industry worldwide brought in about $366 billion in 2019, according to the Harvard Business Review, almost all of which was made from goods and services produced for space such as telecommunications or Earth observation. In 2005, income from such activity was estimated to be about $108 billion.

Supporters said they hope opening a spaceport in Camden County 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 nearby aerospace businesses that officials think will boost the local economy.

“It was never about the launching,” Howard said. “That’s the catalyst. We want all the (research and development), we want all the other opportunities.”

Howard said several companies have expressed interest in bringing their business to the county.

One of those potential businesses could be the Ginn Group, a Peachtree City-based company that mostly works with the U.S. Department of Defense to provide engineering, logistics and facilities support. Steven Justice, chief innovation officer with the company, said it could be interested in maintaining the spaceport’s grounds.

“For example, we could provide all the public works activities for that base — make sure the buildings are maintained, make sure the roads are maintained and all the different systems work, cut the grass, all those different things,” he said.

Rocket manufacturers also could build near the Spaceport Camden site and easily supply rockets not only to the Georgia launchpad, but ones in Florida or Virginia, Justice said.

Residents living in coastal Camden County have mixed opinions on the possibility of having rockets launch from their backyard. Many say they are conflicted.

David Hickox, who lives off of Harriets Bluff in Kingsland, said he was on the fence about the idea, but he welcomes any potential good-paying jobs that would come along with a spaceport.

“I’d love to work out there if it was a good-paying job,” said Hickox, a carpenter. “It’s a beautiful property. So as long as they don’t mess up the river and the waterways, I think it could be pretty cool to have something like that here.”

Waiting game

As of May 31, Camden County had spent about $9.6 million exploring the concept of a spaceport, with much of that money going toward paying consultants, funding studies and doing other preparation that was necessary for the environmental impact statement.

The county will spend $750,000 out of its $65.7 million budget on the spaceport in fiscal 2022.

After spending all that money, county officials await the FAA’s decision — and hope there isn’t another delay.

“I have no control over that,” said Howard, the county administrator. “What we do know is that we meet all the requirements. The FAA has stated that.”

If Camden County gets the license, it will begin the process of purchasing the property, building the spaceport and lining up companies that want to launch their rockets from Georgia’s coast.

Shelley Renner, Jim Renner’s wife, said she hopes the launches never happen. Like most of the Little Cumberland Island homeowners, Renner said the island must remain safe.

“I’ve been here 43 years,” she said. “We have deep roots in this place. And for me, it’s just about protecting the Georgia coast.”