The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to decide this month whether or not to allow the proposed Spaceport Camden to go forward in Camden County, Ga. The spaceport, supporters say, would mean tourism and big business for the county. But the proposed launch facility would send rockets over the federally protected Cumberland and Little Cumberland islands. This has alarmed residents and environmental advocates. In this Georgia Today, Savannah-based freelance reporter Alexandra Marvar explores the debate.  

RELATED: State OKs Spaceport Camden; Few Ways Now For Opponents To Defuse It


Steve Fennessy: Cumberland Island: It's one of the most unique barrier islands in all of America. Just off the coast in Southeast Georgia, it lies just five miles from where Camden County officials are hoping to build a spaceport. The spaceport, they say, would mean tourism and big business for the county. But rockets launched from the spaceport would soar directly over Cumberland. And the potential for a mid-air accident has alarmed Cumberland residents and environmental advocates.

[TAPE] GPB To the Moon — Megan Desrosiers: We could have a failure of a launch every two years. So it would either happen right at the mouth of St. Andrew Sound and contaminate all this salt marsh there or would happen over Little Cumberland or Cumberland Island National Seashore.

[TAPE] GPB To the Moon — Jim Renner: All they can do is send flaming debris on to Cumberland Island and start a canopy fire and burn it up.

Steve Fennessy: They want the federal government to deny Camden County a permit to build the spaceport. I'm joined this week by Savannah-based freelance reporter Alexandra Marvar, who recently wrote about the spaceport debate in The New York Times. Alex, one of the most exquisite spots in all of Georgia has to be Cumberland Island in the very southeast corner of the state. And for those of us who haven't been fortunate enough to visit Cumberland, can you tell us a little bit about it and what makes it just so special?

Alexandra Marvar: Sure, well, it's the farthest south of Georgia's barrier islands and it's the largest, so it's about three times the size of Manhattan. It's covered in marshland and white sand beaches and sawtooth palmetto and these big centuries-old live oak trees. And there's wild boar and hundreds of species of birds and horses and it's more or less undeveloped. So there are also just a few kind of 19th century estates, tabi ruins of old plantation houses. And all of this is kind of tucked into the jungle. So there's just a few hiking trails and otherwise kind of one long sand road about 11 miles long, north to south.

Steve Fennessy: And visitors are limited there, right?

Alexandra Marvar: Yes, yeah. The National Park Service maintains the island. It's part of a national seashore — Cumberland Island National Seashore. There is a max of 300 people per day and people make reservations in advance.

Steve Fennessy: And there is just one hotel right on Cumberland.

Alexandra Marvar: Yeah, it's called the Greyfield Inn. So it's this kind of big white manor built in the early 1900s by the Carnegies, which were one of the wealthy families that used to own most of the island and still own some of it. So it was the home to a couple of generations of Carnegies, including one really interesting woman named Lucy Ferguson.

[TAPE] CBS Sunday Morning: By then, the family's fortunes were in decline. But Cumberland was in their blood, especially Thomas Carnegie's rather eccentric granddaughter Lucy's.

[TAPE] Go Go Ferguson: She always wore a bandana on her head and a buck knife — and that was all day long and even for a dinner party.

Alexandra Marvar: She's kind of a wild woman and her grandchildren still have houses on the property. But now it's also an inn. And it's the only place on the island where visitors can dine in a restaurant or sleep overnight besides campgrounds.

Steve Fennessy: And I'm assuming it's not cheap.

Alexandra Marvar: It's not. No, it's I think starts about 800 bucks a night — two night minimum.

Steve Fennessy: Cumberland Island was for the most part, owned by the Carnegie family. And then it was bequeathed, or at least the vast majority of it was bequeathed to the federal government.

Alexandra Marvar: Yeah, around the 1880s the Carnegies arrived; there were already Sea Island cotton plantations there. They used the island for agriculture, but also as a retreat. And in the 1970s, people wanted to do strip mining there and real estate developers wanted to come in and they didn't have enough resources themselves to protect the whole island from all that. So they decided to sell some and then also kind of deed some special kind of land rights transfers to the National Park Service, who’ve maintained it as a national seashore since 1975.

Steve Fennessy: And so what are some of the conditions that — that that deed came with in terms of leaving the place as is.

Alexandra Marvar: Development is extremely restricted. Very few people have motor vehicles on the island. You have to get a permit to drive on the beaches. You know, there are all these pretty stringent measures in place to protect the natural habitat and the cultural resources that are there, because there are settlements that were founded by some of the enslaved people who lived on the island in the 17 and 1800s.

Steve Fennessy: So this is distinct, of course, from Little Cumberland Island, correct? What is the difference between those two?

Alexandra Marvar: Yes, right north of Cumberland, there is Little Cumberland Island, a much smaller piece of land. And it's a little different because while it's also part of the national seashore, as of the ‘70s, it's privately owned and there are about 50 houses on it. One hundred residential lots. But it's kind of a different vibe. It's really rugged-feeling. The houses are kind of old, little, kind of beach shacks. And there are these giant sand dunes that have — kind of seem like they're about to overtake some of the homes. And — and they live also by really rigorous conservation standards there. But they're kind of self-imposed.

Steve Fennessy: And Cumberland and Little Cumberland islands, both of them are part of Camden County, right?

Alexandra Marvar: Yes. So Camden County — about 54,000 residents — and Cumberland and Little Cumberland are both under that umbrella. It's all part of Camden County, which is where St. Marys is, and Kings Bay naval base.

Steve Fennessy: When we talk about Camden County itself, what is sort of the main driver of the economy there?

Alexandra Marvar: There used to be a big paper mill, paper mills, and where the big thing in Camden County in the ‘40s one opened near St Mary's and by the 1970s, like half of the town was employed by this one mill. But that shut down some years ago. And now the biggest employer is Kings Bay, the Navy base.

Steve Fennessy: When you talk to any county official anywhere, they're always trying to attract economic development. And usually that comes in the form of, say, opening a factory or maybe even building an amusement park or something. But in Camden County, they have been focused on developing a space port. Where did that idea come from for a spaceport?

Alexandra Marvar: As I mentioned, that paper mill is no longer around and the Navy base is it's a self-contained thing. It can't employ everyone in the whole county and towns like the capital of Woodbine. They want economic diversification. Right. And STEM education and cool career opportunities for kids graduating in Camden County and all that good stuff. So some of the Camden County commissioners believe that space port infrastructure could bring that kind of job creation and inspiration and even tourism.

[TAPE] GPB To the Moon: Camden County's administrator Steve Howard heads up the Spaceport Camden project. The idea, he says, is to build it so companies will launch rockets here and maybe even stay.

[TAPE] Steve Howard: If we can get them to land here, we can get them to stay here possibly and refurbish those rockets. And that's what we really want.

Steve Fennessy:But what I came to learn from from the story you did in The New York Times was that specifically in Camden County, the idea of — of space as an industry is not necessarily new there. What were some of the sort of the space-affiliated things that occurred there over the years?

Alexandra Marvar: Camden County has kind of a space legacy, as County Administrator Steve Howard would put it, Camden County played a role in the NASA moon missions and in the ‘60s, and NASA worked with a company that had a chemical plant in Woodbine called Thiokol Chemical Corp. and they made rocket fuel for some of these early rocket development attempts. And also briefly, Camden County was on a list of potential places for the Kennedy Space Center.

Steve Fennessy: So help me understand sort of the idea behind siting a launching pad, where you do it and how. Because we have Cape Canaveral, which isn't that far south of Cumberland Island, and it's basically, you know, poised right on the ocean. What's the idea behind that?

Alexandra Marvar: So there's a lot of talk about space travel right now, like we're seeing kind of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson and Elon Musk shoot these rockets into space and moon tourism.

[TAPE] NBC News: Release, release, release right now. And I'm listening with you to Virgin Mission Control. Lots of applause on the ground here because this is what they had been working on for 17 years, building to this moment. And the hope is that paying passengers will be coming along very soon.

Alexandra Marvar: But Camden County is hoping to do something just a little more utilitarian. They want to build a facility to launch small rockets, which, you know, instead of the size of a skyscraper, these rockets are more the size of like a semi truck trailer. And you attach satellites to these and carry that payload into space. And the Federal Aviation Administration has been regulating the launch of satellites since the 1980s. But a lot of new private companies are now kind of getting in the game.

Steve Fennessy: And we're talking about Camden Spaceport. Are all the rockets that would be launched here, at least initially, unmanned rockets?

Alexandra Marvar: Yes. No one would be on these craft. They're just these kind of utilitarian little satellite transport vehicles that are programmed to fly into orbit and drop satellites off at certain designated spots.

Steve Fennessy: I think it's important to distinguish this idea of space exploration when we talk about going to the moon or or going to Mars versus launching a rocket where we want to deploy a satellite so my GPS works. What you're saying is that what Camden County is interested in is the latter, right?

Alexandra Marvar: Exactly. I mean, the more apps we have that rely on GPS — Seamless, Tinder, Google Maps — the more satellites we need in space. And there are also defense and national security and all kinds of other reasons to have satellites, right. So there about some 3,000-ish satellites in space right now. And in the coming years, you know, companies, commercial companies that would maybe launch from a place like Camden County are planning to make that number more like 50,000. And so all of those are carried on rockets and those rockets need spaceports.

Steve Fennessy: Next, why residents of Cumberland and Little Cumberland think of rocket’s flight path over the islands could be catastrophic. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.


Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. My guest is Alexandra Marvar, a Savannah-based journalist who's been covering the controversy over a proposed spaceport in Camden County, not far from Cumberland Island. And so how many spaceports are there now in the United States? Like, if I have a satellite and I want to send it up into the atmosphere? Who do I call?

Alexandra Marvar: There are more than a dozen spaceports in the U.S., but some of them are only for federallaunches, defense things, you know, the Air Force or Space Force uses them or NASA. But there are 12 in the U.S. right now, I believe, that have commercial licenses from the FAA that could launch commercial rockets. So these rocket-making startups come in and say, you know, “I've got a rocket. I have some clients who want me to bring their satellites up. Can we use your launch pad?”

Steve Fennessy: You said there's about a dozen or so private spaceports throughout the country, but it sounds like, at least in Camden County's eyes, that 12 isn't enough to to support the amount of business there is out there potentially.

Alexandra Marvar: Well, just kind of a picky distinction. There are only a couple of private spaceports, but these are commercial spaceports. So sometimes they have their own state-owned land or their federally subsidized or they also do public and federal launches. But they have the capacity to do this commercial launch as well. And yes, Camden County wants to be one of those, but they don't actually quite know kind of what the end vision is going to be because they want to get the FAA to give them an operational license to say, “OK, this is an appropriate site for a spaceport, it'll be safe to launch here.” And then Camden County would have to secure a partner, somebody who wants to come in and develop the site and help clean it up and bring the rockets that are going to launch from there. So there's sort of a — a lot of things that need to happen for this dream to become a reality.

Steve Fennessy: And so the first of those, as you say, is securing an operational permit from the FAA, basically permission to — to move ahead with the project, is that right?

Alexandra Marvar: Right, right. The FAA, first they come in and go through this very — in this case, it's been quite a long application process that's been underway for almost 10 years. It's cost the county some $10 million so far in all of the things that they've needed to do to put an application together for the FAA to consider. And then the FAA will look at that and say, “Yes, this is a safe place to launch rockets.”

Steve Fennessy: And when are they expected to hear about whether they'll get that permit?

Alexandra Marvar: That decision is expected to come sometime this month. The FAA was originally set to make this decision in 2018 and then it became early 2020. And it's it's been delayed several times.

Steve Fennessy: So Alex, you said that they've been working on this, to varying degrees, for the last 10 years. Do you have an idea of the breadth and the depth of support among the people of Camden County for this? I mean, as you say, the taxpayers have already footed about $10 million just — just on sort of an exploratory phase of this.

Alexandra Marvar: I talked to some residents of St. Marys and outside of Woodbine, there's one guy that I talked to, Steve Winkel. He's a 73-year-old retired engineer who said the county boat slip near his house was in such disrepair that his neighbors are volunteering their time to paint new lines in the parking lot and bringing their own trash cans so people have a place to throw things away. So he's kind of in the camp where he's just pretty amazed that the county has spent a million dollars on this proposal without even having a license, much less having broken ground. Then there are people like Gen. Bob Dickman, who is a retired general from Cape Canaveral who says he's really behind this project. And that it's really the county's only hope for the kind of economic diversity and economic development and future opportunity for kids graduating that he sees for the county. So, you know, for people on both sides of the line, it's — the stakes are pretty high. But, of course, the people on the islands, for them, I think maybe the stakes feel the highest.

Steve Fennessy: Well, let's talk about that. So what is the main concern of of the people who either live on Cumberland or Little Cumberland or those who are just really concerned about preserving the sanctity of those places in terms of having potentially a spaceport? And how far away would it be actually from — from those islands?

Alexandra Marvar: That would be about five miles from the nearest house on Cumberland or Little Cumberland. It's a pretty contentious discussion because it's not been done. In the U.S., rockets don't launch over people. I don't think that the FAA has ever given permission for a rocket to launch over people closer than 500 miles from a launch pad. Now we're talking about five. They’re worried about fire, because sawtooth palmetto is — it's a really good tinder and and it burns fast and hot. So, you know, if there were kind of any sort of debris that might land and — and ignite some part of the islands, people are really worried about that. They're also a little worried about this toxic plume that's under part of the proposed spaceport site from its past life, developing rocket engines and then making chemicals for Union Carbide. So people aren't really sure kind of what a tremendous amount of vibration and fire and stuff like that is going to do, not only to the protected marsh right around that site and the Satilla River as well. I mean, I spoke with Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwin, the chief justice of the Gullah/Geeche nation, and she was mentioning how people in her community are sustenance fishermen.

[TAPE] Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwin: Reading through the draft of the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], I have not seen one mention of any of our culture or our cultural heritage. In Appendix F, that refers to cultural resources, there is no reference to the area, that this proposed spaceport would be in, being a part of a national heritage area, which it is.

Alexandra Marvar: And people are not really sure how that site is going to be cleaned up and whether it's all going to be cleaned up.

Steve Fennessy: Is there any adjustments or mitigation measures that Camden County is offering up to maybe put their minds at ease?

Alexandra Marvar: They believe that the plant is completely safe. They've crunched the numbers over and over again to kind of determine the risk of anything going wrong on the island. And they say that that risk is very small. All of their risk calculations are based on this sort of hypothetical rocket that hasn't been invented yet. So really, it's hard to say what the risk will actually be. And then they have said if they're if there is a fire, they could have kind of marine landing equipment and firefighting activities and — and things like that at the ready. But residents of the islands are a little concerned because of dunes and other geographic features. In a place like Little Cumberland, there's not actually really a way to get that firefighting equipment onto the island to begin with. So they haven't quite agreed on a plan that makes everyone feel like they've got all their bases covered.

Steve Fennessy: Well, when it comes to the flight path of rockets, help me understand. Is — is — there's there's no way to adjust it so it would go, I don't know, a little bit south so it would sort of steer clear of Cumberland Island and Little Cumberland?

Alexandra Marvar: Right, great question. So if it went a little south, it'd probably go more over the Greyfield and the National Park ferry. And if it went even more south than that, it would probably be going close to Kings Bay naval base, where we store what Kings Bay would call large ordnance and what some other people would call nuclear weapons. So they really had to be very precise in the azimuth that they chose.

Steve Fennessy: What are Camden County officials who are championing it saying it would mean for the county itself? In terms of economic development, in terms of jobs, in terms of tourism, anything like that?

Alexandra Marvar: Right. I mean, they've done some studies that say that it's going to generate lots of tourism and big tourism revenue.

[TAPE] WJXT News 4JAX: And now a new report from the Center for Business Analytics and Economic Research at Georgia Southern University suggests the plans could mean a big boost for the local economy. The report says the spaceport could increase the gross regional product by as much as $1.8 million, an increase total business sales by as much as $3.6 million per launch. Plans are to have as many as 12 launches per year.

Alexandra Marvar: They've talked to other hopeful spaceport candidates who feel similarly that there's going to be massive job creation in their communities. County Administrator Steve Howard, whom I mentioned — I spoke with him about his hope that this could really plug Camden County into something bigger that's happening and create what he called Silicon Marsh and to create the sort of corridor of innovation.

Steve Fennessy: When it comes to sort of the approval process from the FAA. As you say, if that were to be in favor of of granting that operating permit, then Camden County would need to go out and find some financial backing for it, right?

Alexandra Marvar: There isn't actually a super-clear business plan, but that's also what's kind of worrisome to people who are a little skeptical of the prudence of this plan because, yeah, they'd need to go out and find a partner and who knows who that partner would end up being. And what kind of attitude would the company that comes in to launch rockets have about public safety or about the environment or about the community, about creating local jobs versus just kind of bringing people in? And these conversations already happening in other communities where spaceports have arrived and they haven't brought the kind of hopeful great news that communities were waiting for, and they're just kind of blowing things up on the beach and closing roads.

Steve Fennessy: Is there any precedent for a local jurisdiction like Camden County to — to build its own commercial spaceport in the hopes that they'll attract a lot of business?

Alexandra Marvar: Midland, Texas, got an FAA license for a spaceport back in 2014 and they actually haven't had any launches there yet. And city councilmen kind of argue in council meetings about budgeting more money toward this effort because it's cost taxpayers $20 million so far and they still don't really have a solid business plan for how to make that worthwhile.

Steve Fennessy: They're imagining that they would have a one launch a month when this is up and running.

Alexandra Marvar: Yeah, and that would involve shutting down some airspace and some water space and possibly evacuating some parts of the island. I mean, that would certainly be the case in any other spaceport. But the Camden County spaceport planners maintain that they don't really need to evacuate.

Steve Fennessy: So is it fair to say that if the FAA says no to this operating permit, that the Camden County spaceport is basically done, the idea is kaput?

Alexandra Marvar: That's a good question. I mean, I think the idea of launching rockets there is kaput for now, if not seriously wounded. But I mean, it doesn't mean that the county administrators wouldn't find some other creative thing to do with this toxic brownfield that they've been hoping to develop for its purpose. But, yeah, I think a lot hinges on this decision that's coming in September from the FAA.

Steve Fennessy: And I assume, too, that if that if they say yes to the permit, that that could open up a lot of litigation, too, by — by those who are opposed to the idea.

Alexandra Marvar: Right, I mean to be clear, it's not just some people with some houses nearby that are worried about this. The National Park Service, the Department of the Interior, 

[TAPE] First Coast News: The National Park Service is pushing back on plans for a commercial rocket launch pad off Georgia's southern coast. The agency said the path of Camden's spaceport rockets over federally protected Cumberland Island pose an unacceptable risk of explosive misfires.

Alexandra Marvar: The Gullah/Geechee Nation, Sen. Raphael Warnock wrote a letter entreating the commissioners not to kind of cut corners when it comes to assessing the risk here. Dozens of homeowners have signed letters. More than a dozen environmental and conservation organizations have signed letters, all asking the FAA and the county to kind of take a closer look at this plan because it doesn't seem completely safe to them.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Alexandra Marvar, whose story on the spaceport ran recently in The New York Times. One other potential environmental impact that opponents to the spaceports say should be taken into consideration is the fact that the waters off Cumberland are calving grounds for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Only 400 of the animals remain. For more Georgia Today, go to GPB. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. And please leave us a review on Apple. Jahi Whitehead produced this episode. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Thanks for listening. See you next week.