Camden County’s spaceport project reached a milestone in December, when the FAA issued Spaceport Camden a site operator’s license, making it the 13th and most recently FAA-licensed site in the U.S. Complications have ensued, including a county-wide vote to prevent the purchase of property from which to launch rockets.
But as Camden courts private investors and prepares to battle its own voters at the Georgia Supreme Court this summer, other communities are pursuing space opportunities, too, including ones in Maine, California, Texas and Michigan.
The project in Michigan bears some similarities to the one in Georgia. As in Camden County, the idea at the Granot Loma site on the shores of Lake Superior is to host vertical rocket launches to carry small satellites, not humans, into space. Both are envisioned as public-private partnerships. And as in Georgia, some locals in Michigan are none too happy about the prospect of rocket launches over an area they treasure for its natural beauty, a recent article in the New Yorker noted.
The nonprofit IQM Research Institute completed a spaceport feasibility study for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation through the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) in February 2021. It concluded that the annual revenue generated from launching a rocket once a week in Michigan would be the same as that of two additional fast-food chain restaurants. MAMA kept the study quiet but after it was mentioned in the New Yorker article, The Current obtained a copy of the study through an open records request.
Analysts at IQMRI wrote a 148-page “strategic operating picture on the current status and emerging opportunities in the U.S. Space economy for Michigan stakeholders” incorporating the insights of “over 80 senior executives, military leaders, and experts within the U.S. Space economy ecosystem.”
They note that after 2018 the demand for additional public-private spaceport capacity paused. Anticipated revenue declined and operational risk grew.
“Currently, U.S. public-private partnership spaceports that are not subsidized by state or federal funding are struggling to remain economically viable,” the study concluded.
Spaceport Camden spokesman John Simpson said the conclusions are “overly broad.” Simpson pointed to Spaceport Camden’s strength in being a vertical launch site that’s closer to the equator, which gives the rockets a desirable boost in speed.
“The proposal for Michigan is vertical launched polar orbits from the Upper Peninsula and horizontal launch from an airport in the lower peninsula,” Simpson wrote. “Neither a polar launch facility nor a horizontal launch facility is comparable to the equatorial launch capabilities of Spaceport Camden.”
Existing spaceports can take care of the demands for vertical polar launches and for horizontal launches, he said.
“Plenty of vertical polar launch capacity exists at both Vandenberg Air Force base and the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak Alaska. Nearly every other spaceport from Cecil Field to Spaceport America are horizontal launch sites created from former airport runways. Those spaceports lay fallow because horizontal launch technology has not matured.
“Launch demand is significant for vertical, equatorial launch sites on the East Coast. That is the type of spaceport that Camden has to offer.”
Simpson said IQM’s conclusions were overly broad, but his own comments don’t address another important factor: rocket size. Spaceport Camden is licensed for small lift rockets only and is limited to 12 launches a year. That’s not what has been launching most frequently.
In its database of launch licenses, the FAA lists 24 licenses issued so far this year. Only five were for small lift. And three of those were for Rocket Lab’s Electron, which launched from New Zealand. Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told The Verge last year he wouldn’t try launching over a populated area, which would be required by Spaceport Camden’s position just inland from Cumberland Island.
The demand at Canaveral isn’t for small rocket launches, either, as Camden resident and County Commission candidate Steve Weinkle noted in a Facebook post when the issue came up in September.
“There’s no overcrowding at Kennedy Canaveral for small rockets. They are already approved to launch 104 per year from new launch pads, plus Canaveral pads 20 and 16, but those pads have never hosted a small class rocket launch!” Weinkle wrote. “ZERO since Y2K.”
Just as the 2022 launch schedule indicates, the Michigan study warns that medium and large rockets are the ones being launched with the frequency needed to make them economical. “(I)n 2020 the launches of the Astra 3, launcher One and Minotaur 4 rockets which are of the size for a Michigan spaceport totaled only four, with three of those as failures during launch.
Critics see the Michigan report as a warning, or in some cases an affirmation of what they’ve been saying all along.
“Camden County should consider this study as bad news/good news,” said Megan Desrosiers, the president and CEO of the nonprofit One Hundred Miles. “The bad news is that launch facilities aren’t the economic drivers the spaceport supporters have been led to believe they are. The good news is that they can still change course.”
Desrosiers noted that the county has not yet purchased the 4,000-acre Union Carbide property where it plans to build the spaceport. The March 8 referendum resulted in a landslide decision to prevent that purchase.
“(T)he public already hates the plan to launch rockets from a contaminated county-owned facility over Cumberland Island; and the commissioners can continue their quest to build a space economy and bring STEM programs to the schools if they simply recruit business leaders in data analytics, engineering, and technology development,” Desrosiers wrote. “All they have to do now is accept that the facts do not support the case for building a new spaceport. If they do, this study says that the (return on investment) for the taxpayers in Camden County will be much greater than if they build Spaceport Camden.”
Kevin Lang, whose family owns property on Little Cumberland, said Spaceport Camden should have commissioned a similar study.
“This is the type of study that should have been performed by Camden County Board of Commissioners in 2015,” Lang wrote in an email. “Instead, they allowed (County Administrator) Steve Howard to provide Georgia Southern University with input assumptions that were widely speculative and that are directly undercut by this well reasoned study.”
Camden, which has spent over $11 million and seven years to get to this point, doesn’t plan to spend the $200 million in infrastructure like Michigan laid out, Simpson said.
He said the IQMRI report supports Camden’s approach as aligning “better with the current trend to smaller, faster cadence launch providers.”
Despite the referendum and the looming court decision, Camden still sees a path to lift off. It’s still paying its spaceport consultants and talking to potential partners whose nondisclosure agreements keep their identities secret.
“Further, Camden has a launch provider that is in discussions to take all 12 launches each year and build out the infrastructure necessary to support their launch vehicle,” Simpson wrote in an email. “This model is much closer to the private spaceport model pursued by SpaceX and Blue Origin which is also not captured by this study.”