Park Service pushes back against licensing Georgia spaceport

(Spaceport Camden)

The National Park Service is pushing back after a U.S. government report recommended approval of a launchpad for commercial rockets on the Georgia coast, saying a chance of explosive misfires over a federally protected island popular with tourists and campers poses an "unacceptable risk."

Camden County in Georgia’s coastal, southeast corner has spent nine years and $10 million seeking permission to build what would be the nation’s 13th licensed commercial spaceport. The proposed Spaceport Camden took a big step forward in June, when the Federal Aviation Administration issued a final environmental impact study that concluded building the spaceport would be its "preferred alternative."

Now the Park Service and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of the Interior, are disputing the FAA’s conclusion that the spaceport poses minimal risks or adverse impacts to Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness. The island, known for wild horses and nesting sea turtles, is managed by the Park Service and draws about 60,000 visitors each year.

In a July 22 letter to the FAA, the Interior Department said the final study on the spaceport’s impacts noted that a failed launch could result in "fires, explosions, or releases of propellants or other hazardous materials."

The letter says the FAA failed to look closely at potential risks to Cumberland Island, which lies along the proposed flight path for rockets 5 miles (8 kilometers) east of the launch site.

The letter, signed by Laura Fleming of the Interior Department’s Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance, says a spaceport safety briefing the FAA gave in December "provided insufficient information for our needs."

"As a Federal land manager charged with the protection of some of the nation’s most protected resources, (the National Park Service) has a responsibility to plan and prepare for a worst-case scenario," Fleming wrote. She added: "We require an in-depth understanding of the extent of what a worst-case scenario might include."

Gary Ingram, the Park Service superintendent overseeing Cumberland Island National Seashore, provided the letter to The Associated Press after a reporter requested a copy.

"The Department of the Interior has determined that the preferred alternative for proposed Spaceport Camden operations poses an unacceptable risk to Cumberland Island National Seashore, based on available information," Ingram said in an email Thursday.

It’s not clear how the FAA, which is responsible for licensing U.S. commercial rocket launch sites, will respond. In 2014, the agency approved SpaceX’s launch site in Texas over objections by the Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

FAA spokesman Steven Kulm said in an emailed statement Friday that the Park Service had served as a "cooperating agency in the environmental review process for Spaceport Camden." He did not address the concerns raised in the Department of the Interior’s letter.

A top local official pushing the proposed Georgia spaceport said such back-and-forth exchanges between agencies are a common part of the licensing process and shouldn’t threaten the project.

"The FAA is the subject matter expert on launch vehicle safety," Gary Blount, chairman of the Camden County Board of Commissioners, said in a statement, "and we believe the FAA and the Department of Interior will develop an acceptable path forward just as they have done in other launch site applications."

Similar concerns about flaming debris from a failed launch sparking fires on the ground have been raised by landowners on neighboring Little Cumberland Island, which has about 40 private homes. Both islands have no roads connecting them to the mainland, making it difficult to respond to fires.

The FAA report concluded the Georgia county had submitted an "adequate and appropriate" plan for dealing with fires and other emergencies that might arise from rocket launches. But the Interior Department letter said there was no documentation to show the Park Service was consulted.

The FAA had planned to issue a final decision on Spaceport Camden’s license by the end of July. Now the agency says there will be no decision before September.

The letter said the Park Service is willing to reconsider its position if it receives more information on potential risks.

Local officials say the county of 55,000 people would get a soaring economic boost by joining the commercial space race, with a private launch pad luring both supporting industries and tourists.

Though more than half of licensed U.S. spaceports have never held a licensed launch, officials pushing Spaceport Camden note it would be among the few capable of firing rockets vertically as opposed to those that take off horizontally like airplanes. They cite a recent report commissioned by a Pentagon unit that found " the future space economy will be dependent on vertical launch."

Steve Howard, Camden County’s government administrator, has said a risk analysis for Spaceport Camden determined the chance of death or injury from a rocket launched at the site "ranges from less than one in 10 million to one in a billion."

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