Federal regulators have delayed the next step in deciding if  Spaceport Camden will become a reality. The Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation announced Wednesday it now expects to issue a Record of Decision about the project by Nov. 3. The deadline had been Sept. 30.

Spaceport Camden
Test from Camden County in 2017. (Spaceportcamden.us)

Delays have been the norm for the controversial Camden County-led project, which aims to launch small rockets from a former industrial site on the marsh in the unincorporated county. The commercial rockets would lift off from the mainland and soar over nearby Cumberland Island National Seashore, a huge sticking point for visitors to the national park and an even bigger one for residents. 

The FAA issued a Draft  Environmental Impact Statement for Spaceport Camden in 2018. After 15,500 public comments were sent in, Camden County altered its request in January 2020. Instead of the medium-sized rockets cited in the original plans, the county switched to seeking an operator license for a launch site for small rockets. Those are 3,300 pounds or less, about the size of a Toyota Corolla with four people in it.

Despite concerns that smaller rockets fail at higher rates, the federal regulators declined to perform a supplemental analysis and instead issued a final EIS in June, basing it on an analysis of a rocket that doesn’t yet exist launched at a single trajectory of 100 degrees.   

Spaceport critics say the imaginary rocket may help Camden get its site operator’s license but no rocket company will jump a second regulatory hurdle and get a license to actually launch from Camden. A recent article in The Verge quoted Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck saying he wouldn’t even try launching from Camden with his Electron rocket, the closest thing to the theoretical one used in the FAA’s analysis. 

“We have a very deep commitment to public safety here, so we certainly would not ever endanger the public in that way. It’s just — not cool,” he said in the article. “But, I mean, there’s just no way that the FAA would agree to that. I just can’t imagine how that would ever happen.”

Marsh as debris field

As recently as Monday an FAA spokesperson affirmed the Sept. 30 deadline for the Record of Decision. 

“The U.S. Department of Transportation Permitting Dashboard lists September 30 as the target date to release the Spaceport Camden Record of Decision,” Spokesman Steven Kulm wrote in an email. “A license determination is a related, but separate action that follows the Record of Decision, and our evaluation is still in process.”

But Monday was also when the Little Cumberland Island Homes Association, which represents the island’s 48 homes, sent its latest letter to the FAA. In it, Kevin Lang, an attorney and the vice president of the association, wrote that the launch site is too small. It has to be big enough that any debris from a failed launch would land on the spaceport’s property, or property the spaceport has permission to use. For a small rocket that’s a circular area around the launch pad with a radius of more than a mile.

Spaceport site
Potential site of Spaceport Camden Credit: Spaceport Camden

But within that circle around the proposed Spaceport Camden launch pad, much of the property belongs to Georgia.

“The debris dispersion radius for the proposed spaceport includes over 2,000 acres of salt marsh that is owned by the State of Georgia. It also includes approximately 770 acres of the Satilla River and tidal creeks, which are navigable waterways owned by the State of Georgia,” Lang wrote to the FAA. “We have previously brought this fact to the FAA’s attention.” 

The property doesn’t have a king’s grant associated with it, meaning it’s not privately held. And the state hasn’t leased it. 

“There is no evidence in the record that the State of Georgia has entered into any such agreement or given Camden County or the FAA any type of commitment to do so,” Lang wrote.  

Doug Haymans, director of the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said Thursday Camden County hadn’t sought any such arrangements.

On Wednesday, the FAA spokesman declined to explain which consultations were ongoing. 

“The FAA is continuing its consultation efforts with participating federal and state agencies and other stakeholders,” he wrote. 

Which agencies and stakeholders? 

“I have nothing more to add,” Kulm wrote.

Mary Landers is a reporter for The Current in Coastal Georgia with more than two decades of experience focusing on the environment. Contact her at mary.landers@thecurrentga.org She covered climate and...