FAA releases draft environmental assessment of proposed Georgia spaceport


WASHINGTON — A proposed spaceport on Georgia’s Atlantic coast is one step closer to approval with the release of a draft environmental impact statement regarding the launch facility.

The report by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, published March 8, assessed environmental effects from both the construction of Spaceport Camden and proposed launch operations, which could also include landings of vehicle stages back at the spaceport.

The draft report makes no specific findings or conclusions beyond identifying construction of the launch site as the “preferred alternative,” but its assessment of various environmental effects, from air and water pollution to noise and visual effects, identified no obvious conflicts with local or federal regulations that could not be mitigated in some way.

The proposed spaceport, to be built on land once used by Thiokol to produce and test solid rocket motors, would include a vertical launch site, landing pad and other launch control and support buildings. The spaceport would host up to 12 launches a year of small to “medium-large” launch vehicles, flying on a narrow range of azimuths to the east and east-southeast.

The assessment didn’t consider a specific launch vehicle but rather a “representative” design. The concept of operations of that vehicle most closely resembles SpaceX’s Falcon 9, based on the ability of its first stage to land back at the launch site as well as the use of static fire tests prior to launches.

The report also considered an alternative design that did away with the landing pad, instead landing first stages on a ship offshore or disposing of them entirely. The report classified that concept as the “Environmentally Preferred Alternative” because “it eliminates certain environmental issues associated with landings at the spaceport site,” including both the construction of the landing pad and sonic booms from the landings.

The spaceport would have some effect on the environment of the site and surrounding area, and the report notes steps launch site developers would have to take to prevent release of potentially contaminated materials at the site and protection of potential archeological sites of historical interest there.

Another issue is noise from launches and landings, which the report notes could disturb visitors at nearby Cumberland Island National Seashore who “can be assumed to appreciate the quiet natural setting of the island and to, conversely, be particularly sensitive to non-natural sound events.” However, it argues that people who would be on the island during launches would be aware of the launch plans and would not necessarily be representative of typical park visitors.

“Because rockets generate such a distinctive sound, and because listener’s feelings about rocket launches can be expected to have a strong effect on their reactions to the rocket’s noise,” it concludes, “previous social surveys conducted on people’s reactions to aircraft noise in National Parks would not be good predictors of people’s reactions to rocket noise.”

Supporters of the spaceport welcomed the release of the draft environmental assessment, without commenting on its findings. “We believe we are the only local government in the country to embark on an EIS for a vertical launch site, and it is a testament to the vision of the Board of County Commissioners and to the citizens of Camden County who supported us through this process,” said Steve Howard, commissioner of Camden County, in a March 9 statement.

Even before the report’s release, opponents of the spaceport, who fear launches or launch accidents could jeopardize Cumberland Island, pressed their case that the launch site should not be built. Protect Cumberland Island, which identifies itself as “a grassroots campaign to create awareness of the threats that a proposed spaceport presents to the Cumberland Island National Seashore,” said in a March 6 statement it would start a new effort to raise awareness about the risks it sees from the launch site.

“The Protect Cumberland Island education campaign is meant to amplify a clear and simple message: Cumberland Island National Seashore should not be put at risk from rockets,” the organization said in its statement.

The release of the draft environmental impact statement begins a public comment period that runs until May 7. The FAA will hold two public hearings on the draft report April 11 and 12 in Kingsland, Georgia, near the proposed spaceport site. Those comments will be incorporated into a final version of the assessment that will support a decision by the FAA whether to grant a launch site operator license for the spaceport.