On an isolated archipelago off the coast of Georgia, where the vestiges of America’s Gilded Age aristocracy keep sprawling estates in tropical wilds, a controversy is roiling over a proposed spaceport.
On one side of the fight are the commissioners of Camden County, Georgia, who have put nine years and close to $10 million of taxpayers’ money toward the construction of a rocket-launching site on the mainland that they say will bring jobs, tourism and cachet to the area of about 55,000 people.
On the other are residents of the nearby barrier islands and coastline who fear falling debris, toxic plumes and catastrophic fires.
The heirs to the Coca-Cola fortune have homes on one of these islands, as do descendants of the Carnegies and other families known for generational wealth, so it’s easy for the spaceport’s most ardent champions to paint opposition to it as “elitist.”
But the fears aren’t based on nothing: Last September, one of the same class of rockets for which Camden County is tailoring its application tumbled from the sky in flaming pieces, igniting fires on public land near its launch site in Alaska. In 2014, a different type of rocket, launched from Wallops Island, Virginia, flew for six seconds before it fell to the ground and exploded, burning 15 acres and blowing windows and doors off buildings over a mile away.
And at Space X’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, there have been multiple “massive explosions,” which the company has referred to in public statements as “awesome.” One 2019 mishap — the official term for when a rocket fails to launch, veers off course or explodes and comes crashing back to Earth — caused a fire that consumed some 130 acres of a nearby state park before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was notified of the blaze.
The two barrier islands in the rockets’ proposed flight path, Cumberland Island and Little Cumberland, are federally protected sanctuaries where endangered sea turtles nest, horses run wild and some of the world’s fewer than 400 remaining North Atlantic right whales calve off the coast.
The islands are also home to dozens of historical sites, including settlements established by formerly enslaved families and Grey Gardens-style crumbling estates. John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married here at the First African Baptist Church, a one-room chapel built of heart pine, in a secret ceremony in 1996.
The biggest controversy, however, is that the proposed rocket trajectory would come very close to people’s homes, blasting over populated areas only 5 miles downrange — a situation that would be without precedent in U.S. history, according to a 2019 Federal Aviation Administration memo.
The National Park Service and the Department of the Interior have questioned the safety of the plan. A diverse group of critics, including fishermen and shrimpers, sea turtle researchers, island residents and the chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee nation have pushed to halt it entirely.
A spokesperson for the FAA, which regulates the commercial space industry and is charged with supporting and promoting its growth, said in a statement to The New York Times: “Every proposed launch site presents unique circumstances.” The agency’s decision about whether the site is appropriate for rocket launches is expected in September.
The commercial space age
Increasingly, private companies with money to burn — including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic — are spending billions to launch rockets and CEOs toward the cosmos.
Businesses are springing up to support those goals, in addition to loftier aims including moon tourism and Mars colonization. But there is already plenty of money to be made in less speculative space pursuits.
Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab in New Zealand, builds and launches spacecraft that carry GPS and radar satellites into orbit. So far, his company makes one of the few small-grade orbital launch vehicles in operation, but it’s only a matter of time until other companies crack the code. The race is part of what Beck calls a “gold rush” moment.
“Space is incredibly integrated into our everyday lives,” he said. “If you turn off GPS, then all the ships and planes go around in circles, Seamless never turns up, even Tinder doesn’t work. All of that is coming from space.”
The space industry is expected to reach $1 trillion or more in value by 2040, according to a report by Morgan Stanley. Satellites are a huge part of that. According to Beck, more than 100 other companies are working to design and launch the kind of small-satellite-carrying rockets (about the size of a semitrailer truck) that his company makes.
There are currently 12 spaceports in the United States where companies can launch this type of rocket, and most are federally subsidized. But as of June 2020, another dozen spaceports were in the works.
Steve Howard, the Camden County administrator, has spent a decade preparing for this moment.
Howard, 49, envisions a future where astronauts make classroom visits, local students graduate into aeronautics jobs and high school robotics clubs are funded by rocket manufacturers. This part of the Georgia coast could come to be known as “Silicon Marsh,” he said — part of a “space corridor” of innovation that could extend from Cape Canaveral to South Carolina.
“This area was a mill town,” Howard said of the county. “That mill’s gone now.” Its largest employer is the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. “We’ve got to make sure we have economic diversity,” he said. “What can we do to build for the future?”
Supporters, including retired generals, Cape Canaveral commanders and the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Federation, feel the spaceport is the county’s best hope.
But critics hate the open-endedness of Howard’s proposal: The county wants to use the site of a former chemical plant for the port, without knowing what company may lease the space or further develop it. This makes it hard for a community to know just what they are signing up for.
There is some historical precedent. In 1965, NASA contracted the Thiokol Chemical company to test solid-propellant rocket engines designed for the moon mission. Testing took place at its plant in Camden County. Also, at one point, Cumberland Island was a front-runner in NASA’s search for a site for the Kennedy Space Center. (Cape Canaveral won.)
But that legacy includes tragedy. In 1971, an explosion at the plant killed more than two dozen people, two-thirds of whom were, as The Atlanta Constitution reported during the personal injury hearings in 1984, “poor Black women from rural Camden County who earned slightly more than the then-minimum wage of $1.60 an hour.”
Bought and then abandoned by another chemical company, the site has been contaminated with toxic waste and unexploded ordnance for decades. The spaceport proposal calls for much of that to be cleared away without explaining how.
“Life magazine declared us the gateway to space in the ’60s,” Howard said. “This is an opportunity to make history again.”
The largest and southernmost of Georgia’s 14 barrier islands, Cumberland is more than double the size of Manhattan, covered in saw-toothed palmetto and live oak, ringed with white sand and marsh, and home to wild boar, deer, alligators, armadillos and over 300 species of breeding or migrating birds. Only 300 visitors are permitted per day.
Those staying at the island’s lone hotel, the Greyfield Inn, where rooms start at $855 per night, arrive via private ferry from Amelia Island, just south of the Florida-Georgia border. (Campers can take the National Park Service ferry from St. Marys, Georgia.) The 15-bedroom Colonial Revival manor was built in 1901, a gift from Thomas and Lucy Carnegie to their daughter Margaret Ricketson, whose own daughter Lucy Ferguson first opened the home to paying guests in the early 1960s.
The white house with its wide porch is still furnished with the Carnegies’ velvet couches and dusty books; there is no Wi-Fi or television. The living room windowsills are lined with animal skulls and crystals, and the walls are hung with Carnegie portraits, including a painting of Lucy seated upon a buckskin, wearing a red head scarf and sheathed knife. (Not pictured: her pet buzzard.)
Lucy’s granddaughter, Janet Ferguson, known as Gogo, lives part time just beyond the bicycle barn of the Greyfield compound, in a house with an art studio where she makes and sells jewelry and tableware cast from locally scavenged armadillo scales, boar tusks and jacaranda seed pods. (One of her brothers, Mitty Ferguson, runs the inn with his wife, Mary.)
“I’ve spent my entire life on the island — seven generations of my family lived here,” Janet Ferguson, 70, said over the phone.
She was here 25 years ago for the Kennedy-Bessette wedding. (It was Ferguson who molded their wedding bands from the ribs of a rattlesnake.) And her family remembers 25 years before that when the Thiokol-Woodbine explosion on the mainland shook the island, rattling the inn’s windows.
Ferguson is one of the island’s few private stewards. In the early 1970s, the Carnegies sold or deeded most of the island to the federal government, so the National Park Service could preserve the wild coastal forest as a national seashore.
Since 2015, the National Park Service has been sending anxious letters to the FAA about the spaceport’s environmental impact. After the 2020 presidential election, those letters have become more strongly worded but the FAA still has the final say.
“We never would’ve entrusted the island to the government — or anyone — knowing that a space launch site would be in our future,” Ferguson said.
“It was to be protected in perpetuity, for the wilderness experience and the enjoyment of the public,” she said. “It feels like this is really going to alter that.”
Under the Azimuth
If the spaceport moves forward, the part of Cumberland Island most affected will be the island’s least populous north end, 12 miles north of the Greyfield. That area is home to Carol Ruckdeschel, a 79-year-old self-taught biologist and founder of Wild Cumberland, a conservation nonprofit. She moved to the island to work for a wealthy family in the 1970s and has lived in this wilderness in a rustic, hand-hewn building next to the First African Baptist Church, for the most part alone, ever since. A 1973 New Yorker profile by John McPhee referred to her as the “wild woman of Georgia.”
“The straight-east trajectory goes right over my house,” Ruckdeschel said, pointing up at the invisible arc a rocket would take across the sky.
Typically, any land or marine space in the flight path of a rocket would be off-limits to humans for hours before tests or launches. But in Georgia a constitutional amendment was passed in 2006 that precludes removing citizens from their land if commercial gain is involved.
Camden County officials have proposed some creative alternatives, including monitoring island occupation by heat-seeking drone, or instituting a first-of-its-kind “authorized persons” status that would allow locals to stay put during launches if they register at various established checkpoints.
Should residents wish to relocate on a launch day, the latest application materials read, county personnel would need to escort them, or offer “appropriate temporary accommodations,” along with VIP viewing passes for the hassle.
This is little comfort to landowners.
For Richard Parker, 64, a journalist with a home on Little Cumberland, which is separated from the north end of Cumberland Island by a marshy waterway, the possible repercussions could be “apocalyptic.”
“This is not a place where fire is a natural part of things,” he said. “Palmettos burn hot and fast. These live oaks are hundreds of years old.”
The fire preparedness plan that Camden County submitted seems unworkable to him. The homes on Little Cumberland are not mansions but well-worn beach houses — some kit ranchers from the ’60s, others modest stilted homes finished in weather-faded wood. Residents here made their own agreement with the Department of the Interior in the 1970s to fold the island into the national seashore while continuing to manage it privately, adhering to rigorous conservation principles.
On the more rustic and more remote Little Cumberland, the tap water smells like sulfur, the power goes out often and the sand dunes have grown so high over the years that they obscure some homes’ second-story windows. Municipal and county services are nonexistent.
If a patch of the island goes up in flames, the call made is not to a fire department, but to a phone tree of neighbors. Wooden trunks, set out along the island’s few sand lanes, contain tools for wildland firefighting: rakes, pickaxes, backpacks that can be filled with water and fire extinguishers.
The Spaceport Camden team maintains that mishaps are “highly unlikely,” and the chance of debris landing on Little Cumberland are “extremely remote.” But on the off-chance of fire, the suggested emergency preparedness plan involves marine landing craft with firefighters and rescue ATVs.
That plan “apparently has made certain assumptions from looking at satellite images taken at low tide,” Parker wrote to the FAA. An actual visit to the island, he wrote, “would have revealed 30-foot dunes across the entire north point of Little Cumberland preventing ATV access to the interior,” and “no water or air evacuation possibilities.”
The wooden trunks have been successfully used by residents to put out small blazes, Parker noted, but trying to imagine them as recourse against flaming fuselage, he just shook his head.
“There have been two plane crashes here,” said a neighbor, Rebecca Lang, a 44-year-old chef and cookbook author, whose father bought a 2-acre plot on the island for less than $8,000 in 1969.
“One hit a house and burned it down,” she said. “So it’s not like we’re making this stuff up.” (That was in the late 1980s, and the house belonged to the parents of Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.)
The stalemate has steadily deepened, compounded by a growing lack of trust.
Lang’s husband, Kevin Lang, 45, a partner at a law firm in Athens, Georgia, and a vocal opponent of the spaceport, said that FAA officials he met at public hearings didn’t seem to be aware that Little Cumberland Island was inhabited.
Brian Gist, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta, said that Camden County refused, “with a few minor exceptions,” to provide documentation about the project and was essentially forced to disclose any details through public records requests.
Howard thinks that environmental advocacy organizations have inflated the risks to bolster their own fundraising efforts.
“People say, ‘Hey, safety, safety.’ But what’s the real impact?” Howard said. “If you look at Kennedy Space Center, their spaceport’s in the middle of the wildlife sanctuary on seashores.
“The science and data will show you, fireballs and things like that, it just can’t happen based on the fuel that’s left on the rocket, the trajectory, the elevation, the safety and the environment,” he said. “Plus, the rocket itself goes quick.”
According to risk models produced by consultants, he said, the chances of “someone getting hurt, or worse” in the 6-10 seconds a rocket would take to pass over the archipelago range from “less than 1 in 10 million to less than 1 in 1 billion.”
His team has run the numbers over and over, he said: “This spaceport, I’m confident, will be the most vetted of all time.”
But these risk models are based on a “representative rocket” the team is betting will be sleeker and safer than the ones made by Rocket Lab — and it has yet to be invented.
That idealized super-small, super-nimble orbital vehicle was conceived by industry experts, including Andrew Nelson, a Spaceport Camden consultant whom the county government has paid more than $1 million so far. He was formerly the chief operating officer and president of XCOR, a space travel company that filed for bankruptcy in 2017 after selling a number of $100,000 tickets to space on a rocket that was never built.
A glut of spaceports?
From the Scottish Highlands to the Hawaiian islands to the Michigan coast of Lake Superior, at least a dozen other communities are weighing the gains that could come from a spaceport against the possible disruption to fragile, biodiverse environments.
Legal challenges and petitions have been generated by constituencies on all sides.
G. Scott Hubbard, a Stanford aeronautics professor, former director of the Ames Research Center at NASA and chair of the SpaceX Safety Advisory Panel, predicts that this kind of development (and disputes over it) will become more common across the United States in the coming years.
“In the first 50 years of aviation from Kitty Hawk 1903 to 1953, there were more than a million aircraft built and used multiple times,” he said. “We gained a lot of experience very fast.”
But space is different. “In the first 50 years of the space program, there were only 45 launches total worldwide,” he said. “The difference in experience here is huge.”
He thinks that trying to build a spaceport in a populated area complicates things for the commissioners in Camden County. But he can’t predict whether humans in the flight path will prove insurmountable to spaceport construction.
“My personal opinion is that there is an overpopulation of spaceports right now, but this is how new businesses start,” he said. “At the beginning of the 20th century, every bicycle shop was building cars.”
The future of commercial space development, then, leaves bystanders in two camps: those who champion forward movement — often at a relentless pace — in the name of progress, and those who are focused on protecting what already exists, and is valued.
“These companies are vying for the licensing, grabbing up everything they can in space, with no regard for the impact down below,” Ferguson said.
The Spaceport Camden team sees that very differently. “What if 10 years from now, county initiatives soar, we’ve got green tech, satellite tech, Department of Defense initiatives, your child or your neighbor’s child can not only graduate but become an individual who contributes to the next space race?” Howard said.
Lately, he has found himself invoking one of his favorite quotes, from Jeff Bezos: “‘If you absolutely can’t tolerate critics, then don’t do anything new or interesting.’”