State Sen. Sheila McNeill, R-Brunswick, has asked questions about a proposed spaceport in Camden County on behalf of constituents who have complained about problems getting answers about the project.
A letter from Camden County Attorney John Myers was attached to the response to 18 questions asked by McNeill explaining the complexities of 13 non-disclosure agreements (NDA) with various companies interested in the proposed launch site.
“Since the Spaceport Camden project relies on our acquisition of the necessary real estate, possibly any disclosure of the existence of an NDA is exempt under this provision,” he said. “The county has been very forthcoming with this information within reason.”
McNeill said the county’s response satisfied her, but not everyone agrees.
Steve Weinkle, a longtime spaceport critic who lives near the proposed launch site, expressed disappointment in the county’s response to McNeill’s questions asked on behalf of constituents who have expressed concerns about the project’s cost to local taxpayers the past seven years.
“We realize now we should have asked for truthful and factual answers,” Weinkle said.
He said non-disclosure agreements and memorandums of understanding do not represent a commitment or investment.
“But they do create the false impression that the $11 million spent so far has been justified,” he said. “Folks want to know Spaceport Camden is not purely speculative.”
The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to make a final decision on a launch site operator’s license later this month. If that happens as expected, county officials said private companies will build the infrastructure needed to launch rockets from the site.
Weinkle said the response to McNeill’s question about funding for the infrastructure did not address roads, buildings, water towers, septic systems, site fencing and security.
County officials did not address how much more will be spent on Spaceport Camden after having spent on average 2.04 percent of its budget funding the project since 2014.
County officials referenced a Georgia Southern University study that estimated as many as 5,000 visitors will visit the region to watch the launches. But Weinkle said the majority of people will go to the Jekyll Island beaches, the Sidney Lanier Bridge and the Jekyll Island Causeway for launches because those are the best viewing areas.
County officials said a market analysis shows the space industry will continue to grow.
“According to a Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute study, ongoing operations of the aerospace industry generate ripple impacts throughout the state of Georgia supporting almost 200,000 indirect and induced jobs with earnings of over $8 billion and economic output of almost $25 billion,” county officials said. “Job wage rates of aerospace employees were 47 percent higher than Georgia’s average wage rates of all industries.”
Camden County would be the third spaceport on the East Coast capable of launching satellites vertically.
“Almost 70% of all United States launch activity takes place on the East Coast,” county officials said. “Spaceport Camden will add additional capacity to the most frequently utilized gateway to space. Spaceport Camden also provides an opportunity for site redundancy for national security.”
Weinkle said Kennedy Space Center just added 104 launch sites and called Camden’s claims “obviously nakedly self serving.”
“No proven demand exists. No private partner has invested a dollar,” he said.
While the county said firefighting/rescue resources would be deployed as part of a launch plan, Weinkle said the response should have included risks for rocket malfunctions at different altitudes and the preparedness of public safety.
“The Camden response fails to mention the training and readiness required to handle emergency responses regarding extremely poisonous hypergolic rocket fuels which are identified in the Environmental Impact Statement as stored on the spaceport grounds,” he said.
The county’s response to the question about protective measures when launching over inhabited areas drew contradictory claims. Spaceport Camden would be the first to launch over inhabited areas.
“It is incorrect to assume that the FAA has never licensed rockets to fly over inhabited areas,” county officials said. “In fact, the FAA’s regulations specifically account for this eventuality.”
But the sites referenced by the county cannot be compared to Spaceport Camden because some of the sites have horizontal launches or they are transported to other locations over the water to be launched, Weinkle said.
Camden officials said the spaceport will coexist with the surrounding environment like the Kennedy Space Center has with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge the past 50 years.
“Kennedy Space Center sits in the middle of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to Canaveral National Seashore,” county officials said. “The refuge supports one of the highest numbers of threatened and endangered species anywhere in the nation. Wallops Island, Virginia – Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport — has two national wildlife refuges...and Wallops Island is acclaimed as the longest expanse of coastal wilderness remaining on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.”
Weinkle called the response “disingenuous.”
Kennedy Space Center launch pads are very close to the Atlantic Ocean shoreline and Wallops launch pads are within 300 feet of the Atlantic Ocean, he said.
“Spaceport Camden is located 8.7 miles inland with tidewaters, private property, and wilderness area, and a visitor-active unit of the National Park system under every launch trajectory,” he said. “Very simply, no spaceport in the world is as hemmed-in as Spaceport Camden.”
McNeill said the county’s response satisfactorily answered her questions but not everyone’s, including Weinkle.
“I can see by the answers it didn’t satisfy him,” McNeill said.
McNeill said there is only one group of Camden residents opposed to the project.
“For the most part, they hope it works out,” she said. “I don’t hear anyone complaining except this group.”