New space race holds promise, but there are possible environmental risks, too
Special To The Washington Post July 31, 2022
With the commercial space industry rapidly expanding, more states are vying to host launch sites for satellites and other cargo, hoping to tap a new and growing revenue source.
But even as “spaceport” proposals proliferate from Georgia to Maine to Michigan — far away from long-established federal launch sites in California and Florida — they’re drawing pushback over fears they could harm sensitive habitats, public safety and even drinking water.
Critics warn that the noise and light generated by launch sites could harm wildlife and that failed launches could spread toxic materials and debris or even cause wildfires.
“Spaceports have become an en vogue economic development tool,” said Brian Gist, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is opposing efforts to establish a launch site in Georgia’s Camden County. “But not every location is a good candidate for a spaceport site, and you need to balance the economic development with the risk to the public and the risk to natural resources.”
Space experts say innovation has driven down the cost of rocket launches even as the miniaturization of electronic components has allowed for much smaller satellites. That means more companies can access space for a wider variety of uses, including mapping, internet access, weather forecasting, agricultural monitoring, environmental detection and tracking of vehicle fleets.
“In the past, [building a local spaceport] was unreasonable because a launch site meant big, expensive, unreliable rockets,” said George Nield, who served as the associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration and now runs a consulting business. “We’re seeing smaller satellites, smaller rockets, a move toward reusable space launch systems which could potentially be more reliable.”
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has led the way in the commercialization of space, and many local officials see the company’s Starbase production and launch site in Boca Chica, Texas — with its more than 1,600 employees — as the sort of economic engine they would like to attract. But Starbase also represents the fears of some environmental groups.
In May, documents released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed that SpaceX’s activity had caused a decline of endangered piping plovers in habitat surrounding its facility, while also potentially harming sea turtles and other shorebirds. Environmental groups have called attention to those findings and criticized the agency’s mitigation requirements as insufficient. The FAA issued a notice in June that the company would need to make more than 75 environmental adjustments to proceed with its heavy-lift Starship rocket program.
Jared Margolis, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit group focused on endangered species, said rocket explosions have damaged habitat in the area, and the company has conducted more test flights and caused more environmental harm than it proposed in its initial request for authorization.
“The lesson from Boca Chica is the impacts can be papered over from the beginning, and then what happens in reality is way worse than expected, and you have significant harm to habitat and species that’s not being addressed,” he said. “I would be concerned if I was these local governments with a company coming in saying it’s all going to be OK.”
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
But many local leaders still see potential in spaceport development. Camden County, Ga., received FAA approval for its proposed spaceport late last year, after years of pushing the project and spending more than $10 million in taxpayer money to support the plan. County commissioners think the site, which might launch small commercial rockets, would diversify the local economy.
Several groups are suing to challenge that decision, saying the launches threaten the nearby Cumberland Island National Seashore, a refuge for sea turtles and migratory birds. Environmentalists think the small rockets have a higher risk of failure, which could blast the island with debris and fuel or even cause a wildfire.
“If we need a certain amount of capacity for certain rockets, we should launch those from the safest places and not simply license them to anyone who believes they can meet the minimum criteria,” said Gist, the environmental lawyer.
This year, Camden County residents voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to block county officials from buying land for the spaceport. As a result, the company that owns the land says it is unable to sell to the county, the Associated Press reported.
County Administrator Steve Howard responded with a statement from the county’s external litigation legal counsel, the Robbins Firm, which asserts that the referendum is not “legally proper”; county commissioners subsequently sent another statement saying they are suing the property owner to complete the deal.
Howard also touted “active negotiations” with multiple launch companies that would yield a return on investment within 12 to 25 months. Another Camden County spokesperson emailed a study funded by the county that determined launches are not a risk for causing a fire on the island.
Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, senior managing director for the National Parks Conservation Association’s conservation programs, said that Florida’s Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge also has been floated as a potential spaceport site.
Launches from a site within the refuge would send rockets over the Canaveral National Seashore, unlike launches at the nearby Kennedy Space Center. She said launch-site proposals, which need to avoid inhabited areas to meet federal safety guidelines, probably will continue to threaten protected coastal parks.
“The very same attributes that draw visitors to these national parks are the same things that the commercial spaceports are looking at because there’s less human development nearby,” she said.
In Michigan, state officials in 2019 awarded a $2 million grant to the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association to study the feasibility of a spaceport in the Upper Peninsula. The proposal includes a vertical launch facility for traditional rockets, a site for horizontal launches — in which airplanes take off with a rocket, which releases in the air and propels itself into space — as well as a command-and-control center. Backers say the project could benefit from the manufacturing expertise in the state’s automotive industry and help the state attract and retain talent.
Gavin Brown, the aerospace group’s executive director, said the spaceport would capitalize on environmentally friendly launch technologies that are still emerging. He said development of the infrastructure would be costly, but the benefits could be massive.
“We’re not trying to get into the space business where it’s at, we’re trying to play a leading role in where space is going,” he said. “There are some things in the testing stage that we’re waiting to see if it makes sense for us, and then we can share with people what it is.”
But the plan has drawn pushback over environmental concerns. Dennis Ferraro, the board president of Citizens for a Safe & Clean Lake Superior, a community group that opposes the project, pointed to launch failures at other spaceports that have damaged or polluted nearby ecosystems.
“If we start industrializing the coastline on the shores of Lake Superior, Katy, bar the door. What’s next after a rocket launch site?” he said.
A spokesperson for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which awarded the grant, did not make officials available for an interview.
Other states — including Alabama, Florida and Maine — have established agencies or public-private partnerships tasked with growing the space industry. This year, Maine lawmakers voted to establish the Maine Space Port Corp., a public-private partnership that will seek to create a complex that hosts launches, research-and-development operations, and data analytics enterprises. Backers say Maine’s location makes it ideal for launches into polar orbits.
“The state government had to demonstrate to the investment and business community that it was very serious about increasing the state’s involvement in the new space economy,” said Terry Shehata, executive director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium, a nonprofit group funded by NASA’s grant program to boost aerospace research.
But some in Maine are wary.
The town of Jonesport voted late last year to temporarily ban commercial rocket launches, after a company announced plans to build a launch site.
Locals in the fishing industry led the opposition, worried that launch operations on a nearby island would interfere with their jobs and damage their gear, the Portland Press Herald reported.
Some analysts are challenging spaceports’ economic viability.
“There are 14 licensed spaceports in the U.S., and most of them are not seeing traffic,” said Phil Smith, program manager and senior analyst with BryceTech, an analytics and engineering firm. “Taxpayers want to see return on investment, and they haven’t seen that. Much of the space industry’s growth is coming from big batches of small satellites on large rockets.”
James Causey, executive director of the Global Spaceport Alliance, a membership organization that supports the planning and operation of such launch sites, countered that skeptics are underestimating how quickly the commercial space industry is poised to grow.
“In the time it takes to build a spaceport to the point where it will actually have launch operations, demand will be there,” he said.
This report is a product of Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.