The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday issued Camden County a license to operate Spaceport Camden, a permit the rural county on the Florida border has spent six years and over $10 million to chase.

County officials crowed “Mission Accomplished” in a tweet.

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

Spaceport Camden is the 13th spaceport licensed in the U.S. and will be the first with homes located a few miles downrange.

The FAA, however, cautioned against starting any countdowns just yet.

“Protecting public safety is the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) top priority when evaluating applications for commercial space licenses. After completing an environmental and safety review, the FAA is issuing a license for Spaceport Camden in Georgia. This license does not authorize a single launch,” the statement reads.

“For launches to occur, a commercial space transportation company must obtain its own license that requires additional and stringent regulatory safety and environmental reviews. Simply put: Before any potential launch can occur, many more reviews remain and no outcome is guaranteed.”

Spaceport Camden is licensed for five years for up to 12 vertical launches annually of small rockets with a flight trajectory limited to a 100-degree azimuth, or angle from north over the Atlantic.

The launch site is a former industrial property the county does not yet own but has an option to buy that expires Jan. 13. Camden citizens opposed to spaceport project are seeking a temporary restraining order on the purchase and have gathered petitions for a referendum on Spaceport Camden. Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett is expected to rule on the restraining order this week.

Some county officials consider the spaceport a sorely needed economic boon that’s positioned to take advantage of a burgeoning space industry. It is the third vertical lift facility on the East Coast.

“Located below 31 degrees of latitude, Spaceport Camden takes advantage of free boost velocity from the earth’s rotation to maximize payload and minimize fuel necessary to reach orbit,” the county noted in its press release. “As a result, Spaceport Camden’s location offers similar launch characteristics to Cape Canaveral, the world’s busiest spaceport.”

Project opponents point out that rockets from Canaveral don’t launch over inhabited land less than five miles away, like Camden’s will. Kevin Lang, vice president of the Little Cumberland Island Homes Association, pointed to Camden’s limitations in an email to The Current.

“The Launch Site Operator’s License is limited to a single 100 degree azimuth, a “notional” rocket that does not exist and a “lofted” trajectory specifically designed to minimize debris impacts to Cumberland Island National Seashore,” he wrote.  “These limitations were all necessary to squeak by the FAA’s regulations.  The FAA has also clarified in the Record of Decision that they have deferred several show stoppers to some future time when someone might come along to actually launch a rocket from the site.  The show stoppers include the Department of Interior’s position that launching rockets over Cumberland Island National Seashore will violate federal law.” 

About 4,000 residents signed the petition to force a referendum on the issue. Along with launch safety issues, many see the purchase of the 4,000-acre former industrial site as presenting too many liabilities to the county.

“The (license) should not influence the Superior Court’s decision to allow the Temporary Restraining Order preventing closing on the Union Carbide purchase until after the public has voted in the Special Election that should be held between February 15, 2022 and March 8, 2022,” said petition organizer Steve Weinkle. “Camden County’s attorney, at the behest of our County Commissioners, is fighting to prevent the Special Election that more than 4,000 registered voters have asked the Court to schedule under provisions of the Georgia Constitution.”

Locals and visitors alike have also fought to preserve the integrity of Cumberland Island National Seashore, which sits under the rocket flight path just 3.5 miles from the proposed spaceport. They’ve been joined by local, regional and national environmental groups who oppose the spaceport.

“Virtually from the start, the FAA’s review of Spaceport Camden has been fraught with factual mistakes and legal errors. We will carefully review the FAA’s decision to ensure that it fully complies with all applicable laws,” Brian Gist, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a prepared statement.

Mary Landers covers Coastal Georgia’s environment for The Current, a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time there writing about health,...