The imaginary rocket driving a small-town spaceport

A saltwater marsh on Cumberland Island, Georgia Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By Alexandra Marvar,
Published by The Verge, 22 September 2021

Is the FAA licensing spaceports that are doomed to fail?

The latest launch attempt out of Kodiak, Alaska’s spaceport shows in vivid detail just how quickly things can go sideways. In the video, rocket maker Astra’s 3.3 skids horizontally for hundreds of yards, then shoots some 20 miles upwards, listing off course. Ground crew terminates the flight, and the craft free falls back to Earth in pieces, landing in a fireball.

None of Astra’s six test flights from Kodiak’s Pacific Spaceport Complex have made it into orbit, and five have exploded. But, as Jeff Bezos says, failure and innovation are inseparable twins.

Analysts expect the commercial space industry to be worth $1 trillion by 2040, and increasingly, small towns are angling to get in on the action. One such community is Camden County, Georgia, where a group of county commissioners is longing for their own spaceport — and the economic growth and diversification they hope will come with it. There’s one caveat: Spaceport Camden’s sole proposed launch trajectory would, in an unprecedented move, cross two populated islands, as well as a federally protected marshland and wilderness, just a few miles from the toxic brownfield set to become the launch site.

To some residents, this seems like an astronomically bad idea. But failures — even explosive ones — don’t faze Camden County: according to spaceport planners, Astra is a prime launch tenant candidate, and Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which runs Kodiak’s spaceport, could become an operation partner.

All they need to get this plan off the ground is an operation license from the Federal Aviation Administration. And to secure that, they aren’t basing their proposal on rockets like the one that blew up in Alaska — instead, they’re using models of rockets that don’t exist.

Lofty Ambitions

In the FAA’s nearly 40 years of commercial rocket oversight, the agency has never permitted anyone to launch vertical rockets directly over populated areas closer than 500 miles away. (The US once launched a rocket over Cuba in the 1960s; debris landed in a field there, 511 miles from the launch pad, and apparently killed a cow, spurring anti-American protests in Havana.)

The county has spent more than $10 million to secure an FAA license

Unfortunately, this unprecedented move is critical to Camden County’s plan, leaving some people worried about falling debris or fire igniting the flammable palmetto and oak forests that coat the archipelago in the flight path.

But the county’s spaceport steering committee is so confident that it can break the mold, it has spent more than $10 million in the past nine years to help secure this FAA license. According to emails obtained through open-records requests, this spend has gone to consultants, lobbyists, and some creative publicity efforts, like facilitating the placement of a June 2020 op-ed designed to compel then-president Trump to pressure the FAA into a faster decision.

It didn’t work; the FAA has yet to issue their verdict. Their record of decision is slated for this month — the last regulatory step that comes before the licensing determination. Everything hinges on whether or not operating a spaceport out of Camden’s county seat of Woodbine, population 1,400, could launch, according to the FAA, “at least one type of launch vehicle” safely.

Together, county and federal agency officials have put together an Environmental Impact Statement that lays out the evidence: a master document filled with the results of risk analyses based on rocket size, thrust, weight, trajectory, behavior, failure rate and so on.

Published in June, this document does not look at the Astra rockets officials say they may one day launch — the ones that routinely crash. Rather, to prove safety, they bring in data from a much more reliable rocket, a “hypothetical” one that has yet to be invented.

“That is exactly the sort of catastrophic failure that can happen over our coast”

Present-day rockets are too heavy, so the officials made their hypothetical rocket much lighter. They don’t gain altitude quickly enough, so the officials devised a first-of-its-kind “lofted trajectory.” If something goes wrong on a small-lift vehicle launch today, humans on the ground analyze data before terminating the flight, which could take several seconds. Camden’s proposed rocket has a sleek automated flight termination system that works in fractions of a second instead. And today’s small-lift vehicles — this class of small, uncrewed utilitarian rockets like Astra’s — are too big to be safe in this scenario, so the officials envision something almost half the size of the smallest rocket currently being developed, much less deployed.

A tested and proven craft with these characteristics is nowhere on the horizon. While companies were “racing” to build small rockets as of 2016, early in Camden County’s application process, today, the business case for super-small rockets is debated, and companies who have been most successful in this niche to date are pivoting to bigger craft in search of profitability.

Camden County officials dispute that the rocket described in its application is outside workable parameters. In a statement to The Verge, a lobbyist working with the project defended the application, citing a letter from the FAA approving the thrust-to-weight ratio of the proposed craft and stating that “the pitch profile of the trajectory Camden used in its application is not unique relative to historical missions flown to orbit.”

But spaceport critics like Steve Weinkle, a retired head of design engineering who lives a few miles from the proposed launch site, argue a hypothetical rocket isn’t useful when it comes to calculating actual risk. Kodiak, he says, is what’s real, and the launch history there should be a wake-up call for the county.

The FAA says it accounts for “a non-zero probability of failure”

“That is exactly the sort of catastrophic failure that can happen over our coast, Cumberland Island, and near Kings Bay [the county’s naval base, where large ordnance is stored],” Weinkle wrote on his spaceport watchdog blog, pointing to Astra’s dramatic Kodiak crash. “Yet, for some unknown reason, the FAA tells us that we have nothing to worry about since their calculations assume that everything on their ‘representative rocket’ will work perfectly.” ​​

Assessing the impact

In Spaceport Camden’s EIS, the FAA declines to put numbers to the possibility of failure on the basis that the potential for “adverse impacts associated with launch failures” is “not planned” and would be “unlikely.”

The executive director of the agency’s Office of Operational Safety, Daniel Murray, leaned hard on this optimism in an August letter responding to concerns about damage to cultural resources. “There is no anticipation of any fire or damage during a nominal launch,” Murray assured Georgia’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation — with a footnote specifying that “nominal” refers to a launch where all aspects of the flight go “as expected.

“Irresponsible, at best”

A spokesperson for the FAA clarified in an email to The Verge that the agency has never said the hypothetical rocket will “work perfectly” and that their risk analyses did account for “a non-zero probability of failure (i.e., there could or would be a failure).”

But after tracking the frequent catastrophic failures among launches that are happening, Weinkle said it’s “irresponsible, at best” to issue a license declaring the site safe for a spaceport “when your measure of safety is that you don’t plan on anything going wrong.”

The county and its consultants argue that to keep up with a rapidly changing industry, innovators need to be constantly looking ahead. It would be impossible to prove safety looking just at the current landscape: more than 100 companies are trying to design the next small-lift success, 10 are in development, and of those, only one — Rocket Lab’s Electron — has ever even made it into orbit.

Officials acknowledged the risk in internal FAA emails

Electron was a major source of inspiration for Camden County planners, cited by name in the EIS. But while it may be the safest rocket of its kind, when asked if it might be safe enough to launch over a populated area, its maker, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck, said he wouldn’t try it.

“We have a very deep commitment to public safety here, so we certainly would not ever endanger the public in that way. It’s just — not cool,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said of launching over people just 50 miles into the rocket’s flight path. “But, I mean, there’s just no way that the FAA would agree to that. I just can’t imagine how that would ever happen.”

Internal emails show the agency was hesitant, too. Officials acknowledged back in 2017 that the risk to people on the islands in the proposed flight path was “a problem from the very beginning.” Writing internally, even Murray himself expressed concerns. “I’m not sure a small vehicle is safe enough,” he wrote in an internal FAA email. “I think they need to speak to why they are not assuming an explosive impact.”

According to Ramon Lugo, the director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida who has worked with NASA since 1975, that won’t necessarily pose an obstacle to securing an operation license for the spaceport itself.

“My guess is… there aren’t going to be a lot of rockets lined up to launch from Spaceport Camden.”

“The FAA Commercial Space Transportation Office’s mission is not to deny licenses,” Lugo said, noting the agency’s “dual mandate” to both regulate and foster the industry. “Their mission is to try to find a way to make it work.”

And just because a spaceport site has an operation license doesn’t guarantee future operators will be successful in securing launch licenses, Lugo added. That is a separate process altogether — and a more rigorous one that requires verifiable data from existing rockets.

The FAA has granted just 413 of these in 40 years of launching commercial satellite payloads into orbit. If that hurdle is overcome for Spaceport Camden, a launch operator would theoretically need to have a vehicle as safe as the rocket as the project’s EIS suggests. And then, they’d have to insure the flight — a daunting proposition considering the unusual launch trajectory, Lugo said.

“My guess is when that part comes to pass, there aren’t going to be a lot of rockets lined up to launch from Spaceport Camden,” he said. (Astra did not respond to a request for comment.)

Still, it’s surprisingly common for commercial spaceports to lie unused after approval. Commercial projects in Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, and elsewhere have secured their operation licenses years ago and are still waiting for their first launch and the economic windfall that is supposed to come with it.

Spaceports That Don’t Take Off

Stacy Studebaker, a retired schoolteacher who has lived on Kodiak Island for 30 years, remembers the song and dance about economic development: “The people who started it came in and said, ‘We’re going to turn these fishermen into rocket scientists,’ and ‘We’re going to have college classes,’ and they had astronauts come into town, and had big meetings with the public saying, ‘Oh, this is going to be the greatest thing for the Kodiak economy,’” she recalled of the spaceport’s scandal-ridden establishment in 1998. “It’s proved to be pretty much smoke and mirrors.”

Even if it didn’t yield the economic boom some hoped for, it’s a relative success story. After 20 years of government-funded launches, Kodiak has hosted six commercial launch attempts since 2018, while more than half of the dozen commercial spaceports in the US have hosted none at all.

“Is this really the right thing for a county like Camden?”

In Midland, Texas, public officials secured their own spaceport operations license in 2014. Their application also revolved around a representative rocket: a Branson-style experimental space-plane called the Lynx Mark I, under development by a company called XCOR. But, the rocket was never built, and XCOR went bankrupt in 2017.

In the meantime, Midland spent about $20 million on the venture. That amount included “$10 million in recruitment for a company that’s nowhere to be found,” Midland Councilman Spencer Robnett noted at a 2019 city council meeting. Robnett called the project a “waste of taxpayer dollars” and entreated colleagues to “take a hard look” at the return-on-investment so far, compared to the oil and gas economy, which has bounced back in recent years, boosting the local economy, while the spaceport has drained it.

“We don’t need… spaceport jobs. We need houses. We need roads. We need infrastructure; we need police officers and firefighters and all those things,” he said.

XCOR may be “nowhere to be found,” but its former CCO and CEO, Andrew Nelson, is now on the Spaceport Camden team, helping to guide the application process. So far, he’s received more than $1 million in consulting fees.

In mid-August, a city councilman in Camden County’s other town — St. Marys — called for a grand jury investigation into Spaceport Camden’s finances.

Meanwhile, owners of 91 out of the 100 residential lots on Little Cumberland Island — one of the islands in the flight path — have signed letters to the FAA asking the agency not to approve the spaceport. The National Park Service and Department of the Interior have expressed serious concerns about the plan’s safety. Leaders of more than a dozen regional environmental advocacy organizations had signed a letter to voice concern about the “dangerous precedent that the FAA’s mishandled review could set,” and Senator Raphael Warnock requested in a letter that the agency not “cut corners” on assessing social and environmental impacts.

For these parties, the best-case scenario is that the FAA denies Woodbine a site license. But surveilling the landscape, Lugo doesn’t see that as a win either: if the site is licensed, the county will continue to spend “millions annually” on spaceport infrastructure and maintenance in a gamble with no certain payoff.

“Is this really the right thing for a county like Camden, which is not the wealthiest county?” he asked. “If I’m a taxpayer in Camden County, [I’ve] basically enabled people that have a ‘field of dreams’ vision of a launch site. What will be the opportunities lost because of that?”

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