The Federal Aviation Administration’s decision whether to grant a launch site operator’s license for a proposed spaceport in Camden County is due in the coming weeks.
While it’s uncertain how the FAA will rule, it is certain the decision will determine if the debate has ended or if a prolonged legal battle is just getting started.
Athens lawyer Kevin Lang said approval of a launch site operator’s license does not guarantee a rocket will ever be sent into orbit from the site.
“The safety requirements for obtaining a launch site operator’s license are much less rigorous than those for actual rocket launches,” Lang said. “The FAA’s threshold for casualties moves from one casualty in 10,000 launches for the site operator’s license to one casualty in one million launches for each launch license.
“The FAA also must consider all foreseeable risks for actual rocket launches, which would include the risk of uncontrollable fires on Cumberland Island and Little Cumberland Island.”
Lang, a Little Cumberland Island property owner, said the insurance for commercial rocket companies will be prohibitively high because trajectories will take rockets over homes and people.
“Why would a commercial rocket company pay to insure that risk when they can just go launch from a spaceport that does not require overflight of people and homes?” he asked. “There are plenty of idle launch pads located directly on the ocean around the United States.”
Steve Weinkle, another spaceport opponent, agrees with Lang about the risk to public safety, but he predicts the FAA will grant a launch site operator’s license based on a hypothetical small rocket that hasn’t been invented yet.
The spaceport has been touted for its potential to create high-tech, good-paying jobs that Weinkle said has been used to make the debate a political issue.
“I believe nobody wants to be the guy who says no,” he said. “Nobody wants to harm the potential benefit to Camden County.”
Both Lang and Weinkle said the FAA has failed to perform an environmental review in a way that complies with the National Environmental Policy Act, and they expect multiple legal challenges if a license is granted.
Lang said the county has spent more than $9 million for the project despite many concerns over the license request.
“At some point you have to quit trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” he said. “The spaceport, even if they obtain a launch site operator’s license, is not commercially viable. They have no business plan, and the cost of paying lawyers, consultants and PR firms to keep the project alive is impossible to rationalize or justify at this point.”
The worst scenario will be if the FAA grants a launch site operator’s license to a spaceport that is commercially unviable, leaving Camden County with two tracts of heavily contaminated soil from the companies that operated from the site.
“What’s Camden County going to do if we don’t launch rockets?” Weinkle asked. “Camden County will own a licensed spaceport that cannot launch rockets.”