Georgia spaceport decision delayed

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Updated Dec. 19 with FAA letter.

TITUSVILLE, Fla. — A Georgia county has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to place its application for a commercial spaceport license on hold in order to change the types of vehicles it expects to launch from the site.

In a Dec. 17 statement, the Camden County Board of Commissioners said it and the FAA had agreed to toll, or pause, the FAA’s ongoing review of the application for Spaceport Camden. That halts the 180-day review of the application that started this summer.

The county said it asked the FAA to pause the review in order to modify the license application. The original application projected the site supporting up to 12 launches a year of “medium-large” launch vehicles, as well as the same number of first-stage landings. The county now anticipates supporting an unspecified number of launches of small vehicles without any stage landings.

“While the public safety review performed to date has demonstrated that a medium-large launch vehicle with a first-stage return would meet all applicable public safety requirements, even when conservative assumptions are used, the county believes that narrowing the application to include operation of only small launch vehicles with no first-stage returns is more consistent with the types of operations that will be conducted at Spaceport Camden and will streamline the review process at the FAA,” the county said in its statement.

The timing of the announcement raised eyebrows in the industry since, a month earlier, the county announced that it expected the final environmental impact statement (EIS) covering spaceport operations to be released by Dec. 16. That would be followed no earlier than 30 days later by a formal “record of decision” by the FAA, the final milestone in the spaceport licensing process.

However, those familiar with the licensing process, speaking on background, said that even before the announcement to toll the application, they were concerned that the EIS would not be done by that date because of the heavy workload of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. They added it wasn’t clear how long the changes to the license application, and their review by the FAA, would take, or how they would affect the EIS.

The FAA published a draft version of the EIS for Spaceport Camden in March 2018. That report identified no environmental issues, from air and water pollution to noise and visual effects, that could not be mitigated in some way.

The proposed launch site has faced strong opposition from residents of nearby Cumberland Island and from environmental groups who believe, despite the analysis in the draft EIS, that the launch site would be hazardous. Of particular concern is the effects of a launch accident and the expectation that much or all of the island would need to be evacuated for launches.

The FAA, in an Oct. 17 letter to Camden County obtained by SpaceNews, cited three outstanding issues in its spaceport license application that had yet to be resolved, including the issue of evacuating residents who may be in the overflight zone for launches. “Camden County has not demonstrated that it can control or manage the population in the vicinity of the proposed launch site, particularly on Little Cumberland Island,” the letter stated. The letter was first reported by WABE in Atlanta.

The letter also noted a lack of an agreement with the Coast Guard to issue notices to mariners for launches, and the lack of a “coastal consistency review” submitted by the county to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources needed for the environmental assessment. Neither the county nor the FAA have indicated if those issues have since been addressed.

Spaceport proponents say the change in application is based on shifts in the launch market. The only vehicle that meets the criteria of the original application, based on its size and its ability for the first stage to land back at the launch site, is SpaceX’s Falcon 9. SpaceX has not expressed any public interest in launching from Spaceport Camden.

By contrast, there is a large number of small launch vehicles under development, although many of them are unlikely to make it to flight because of technical or financial difficulties. Vector performed a low-altitude test flight of its Vector-R small launcher from the Spaceport Camden site in August 2017, but the company laid off most of its workforce two years later and earlier this month filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

ABL Space Systems, another small launch vehicle developer, said earlier this year that it had an agreement with Camden County to establish a test site near the proposed spaceport. The company recently completed testing of the E2 engine it is developing for its RS1 vehicle, though, at Spaceport America in New Mexico, according to a newsletter published by the spaceport Dec. 17 that was the first to disclose that the company was testing there.

“Spaceport America provided the perfect location and support staff for us to test the E2 rocket engine,” Dan Piemont, chief financial officer of ABL, said in that newsletter. “Our team did a great job rapidly activating our deployable test site, and we are happy with how E2 performed. This campaign was an important step toward bringing the RS1 launch vehicle to market.”