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Spaceports seek ways to deal with public opposition

Kodiak launch
Alaska Aerospace Corporation says it's working more closely with local industries, like fishing, to minimize the impacts of launch activities on Kodiak Island. Credit: Alaska Aerospace Corp.

HOUSTON — Commercial spaceports say they need to become more proactive in dealing with public opposition to proposed launch sites through a combination of education and community involvement.

In October, a private landowner in Hawaii, W.H. Shipman Ltd., announced it was pulling out of a planned launch site on property it owns near the city of Hilo. The site, to be developed by the Alaska Aerospace Corporation for use by small launch vehicles, faced strong opposition from local residents, who had environmental concerns about the project.

“There was a lot of backlash,” said Mark Lester, president of Alaska Aerospace, during a presentation Nov. 19 at the annual meeting of the Global Spaceport Alliance, a spaceport industry group, here. He said the company had hoped that working with a private landowner would overcome objections that scuttled past spaceport projects on the island on public land.

Alaska Aerospace also operates the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska on Kodiak Island. There remains some local opposition to the site, he said, particularly when launch operations interfere with fishing, the main industry on the island, or airspace closures that disrupt the island’s links to the rest of the state. “We still have our ‘fan club’ that doesn’t want us to be there,” he said. “But I think we’ve done some things to improve the relationship.”

One key area is education. “Everyone can visualize what an airport is,” he said, but there’s “confusion” on what a spaceport involves. Discussion of rockets, he added, often brings up visions of large launch vehicles, rather than the smaller rockets many sites plan to host.

Another topic is the “value proposition” for spaceports, which Lester described as the benefits those spaceports can provide for communities. That’s a challenge for many launch sites, he said, since they are relatively lean operations. He estimated the proposed Hawaiian site would have generated about a dozen jobs for spaceport operations. Instead, he said sites need to emphasize the broader economic impact, like those created by airports. “It’s not about who works for the airport, it’s who works at the airport.”

In Alaska, an issue is airspace and waterway closures, which could grow as the spaceport seeks to attract new commercial business. “That’s a legitimate concern,” he said. “We have to integrate into their way of life.”

Lester said that safety is less of a concern that other issues, like environmental impacts, thanks to the oversight provided by the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial launches with a mandate to protect the uninvolved public. “The FAA has done such a great job, with no injuries or fatalities, that people take it for granted,” he said, adding that, in Alaska, some critics want to reduce the size of the safety buffers around the launch site. “It almost feels like people want to clamor closer to it.”

Those efforts and others, such as holding open houses and public meetings, weren’t successful in Hawaii. He said the situation there was complicated by the Thirty Meter Telescope, an observatory whose construction on Mauna Kea has been blocked by protestors who oppose placing the observatory on a site sacred to native Hawaiians. “The Thirty Meter Telescope did not help,” he said. “It’s just an environment that’s very tough for new technology.”

Hawaii is not the only place where proposed launch sites face public opposition. The FAA is currently finishing an environmental impact statement for a launch site called Spaceport Camden in Camden County, Georgia. Nearby residents oppose the site because of environmental concerns, including what would happen in the event of a launch accident. Spaceport officials announced Nov. 7 that they expect the FAA to complete the report by Dec. 16, with a final decision on whether to award the spaceport a license no more than 30 days later.

Plans to have Virgin Orbit operate its LauncherOne air-launch system from a British airport, Cornwall Airport Newquay, have also attracted criticism because of environmental concerns linked to its climate footprint. “There was very little data out there about the total carbon impact of launch,” said Miles Carden, director of Spaceport Cornwall.

That led to a report that concluded that launch operations would have no significant impact to the region’s carbon emissions. “The level of scrutiny we have will increase,” he said, arguing that spaceports needed to share similar data to bolster their arguments that spaceports have limited environmental impacts. “If we don’t do that, our industry will be destroyed. It’s an easy target.”

Lester said that, after W.P. Shipman’s decision to drop out of the Hawaiian spaceport project, Alaska Aerospace has “paused” its plans for a launch site there. He did not rule out, though, resuming such a project in the future, noting that one landowner elsewhere in Hawaii had already contacted him about pursuing a launch site project.

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...