Spaceport Camden
The proposed Spaceport Camden in Georgia originally envisioned hosting larger launch vehicles, similar to SpaceX's Falcon 9, but now says it wants to modify its FAA license application to reflect a new focus on small launch vehicles. Credit: Spaceport Camden

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration awarded a license Dec. 20 to a proposed commercial launch site in Georgia, but that facility still faces legal and business challenges.

The FAA issued a launch site operators license, also known as a spaceport license, to Camden County, Georgia, for the proposed Spaceport Camden. The license came after years of environmental reviews of the site that slowed the licensing process, as well as the county’s decision two years ago to focus on small launch vehicles rather than larger ones originally envisioned for the site.

The license came after a formal “record of decision” by the FAA regarding those environmental reviews. The document outlined the assessed environmental impacts of the proposed site, supporting a dozen launches a year of small launch vehicles, and the measures required to mitigate those effects, concluding that “all practicable means to avoid or minimize environmental harm from the Selected Alternative have been adopted.”

County officials, who have invested an estimated $10 million into spaceport plans, hailed the decision as a boost to the area’s economy. “This once in a generation opportunity will provide a new frontier of economic prosperity for Camden, the region and the state of Georgia,” said Steve Howard, county administrator and project leader for the spaceport, in a statement.

The license is a necessary but not sufficient step toward enabling launches from the site. Any company that seeks to launch from Spaceport Camden would have to get an FAA launch license, a process that includes environmental reviews. The terms of the license also prohibit the county from entering into an agreement with a launch provider until the county has a purchase or lease agreement for the property where the launch facility would be built.

The county has an agreement with Union Carbide, the company owns the property, to purchase it. However, a petition signed by several thousand county residents seeks a referendum on whether to allow the county to spend any money acquiring the property. A state court is reviewing the petition to see if the referendum should go forward in early 2022 and also whether to block the county from acquiring the land in the meantime. Should the referendum pass, it would effectively kill the project.

Another challenge for the county is identifying potential users of the spaceport. While there are dozens of small launch vehicles under development, none has formally committed to launching from Spaceport Camden.

The county statement about the FAA license included a quote from James Cantrell, chief executive of Phantom Space, which is working on a small launcher. “Phantom Space is thrilled to see Spaceport Camden open for business,” he said. “The additional launch capacity aligns well to our efforts to make access to space commonplace with reliable and responsive space transportation systems.”

Cantrell was previously chief executive of Vector, which conducted a low-altitude test flight of a vehicle prototype from the Spaceport Camden site in 2017. He departed Vector in 2019 when the company lost financing, leading eventually to Vector’s bankruptcy and liquidation. Earlier this month, the liquidating trustee for Vector filed suit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware against Cantrell for breach of fiduciary duty during Cantrell’s time as chief executive, alleging “disloyal and systematic looting of Vector for his own personal financial gain in order to fund Cantrell’s personal racing hobby and other business ventures unrelated to Vector.”

Spaceport Camden backers have argued that demand for small launches can’t be met by other spaceports, notably Cape Canaveral. However, small launch vehicle company Astra Space announced Dec. 6 it would perform its next launch from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in January. That facility was previously used for Athena launches but had been idle in recent years other than an Orion launch abort test in 2019.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...