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Incredible Shrinking Spaceport

Spaceport enthusiasts will be disappointed that the ISS is coming to Camden. No, the International Space Station is not coming here, but rather we’re going to get the Incredible Shrinking Spaceport as Steve Howard and our elected Commissioners try to save the spaceport project.

Several recent maneuvers by the County has foretold a significant downsizing of the spaceport. The test launch of an amateur rocket, the release of a two-page Economic Summary, and the removal of images from the spaceport website all point to a substantial downsizing of Spaceport Camden.

As recently as August 26, 2017, the Spaceport Camden website’s showed rockets that will not be launched from there. In the past few days, the Spaceport Camden website has been updated to make it a little less deceiving and to reveal how much those plans have changed. Gone from Camden’s website are the Atlas V, Falcon 9 and New Shepard rockets. The website pictures remained even after Spaceport Camden introduced its new logo.

All of these rockets have now been purged as Camden officials prepare to launch unproven rockets from unproven companies. None of the prospective rockets are capable of space tourism or resupply missions to the International Space Station. Vector’s amateur rocket has taken their place and it appears that Camden taxpayers are now betting on Vector Space’s never-launched orbital rocket.

It is easy to understand how the casual observer would think that Spaceport Camden was going to be a full-fledged spaceport perhaps somewhat like Kennedy Space Center. Until a few days ago, the Spaceport Camden website featured promotional pictures of large rockets from SpaceX, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK and United Launch Alliance. Supporting the original hope that these rockets would launch from Camden, Andrew Nelson, the Commissioner’s self-professed spaceport subject matter expert used these rockets to explain in tortured and highly-conditional language about the supposed low risk of rockets launches at Spaceport Camden and provided detailed explanations about hazard zones. None of that information applies to rockets with limited flight experience or a record of failures.

Coupled with Representative Jason Spencer’s 2-year quest for a law to protect space companies from being sued by their space tourist customers, plus Camden’s comments to a local newspaper that we were “finalists for Blue Origin,” our officials presented quite a wonderful plan. We’d launch to the International Space Station and Mars while space tourists came from around the world to take a ride on a rocket. And of course, we were led to believe there would be hundreds or thousands of jobs that would keep our children from having to move.

Camden County’s spaceport ambitions were revealed at the December 2015 FAA EIS Meeting where the FAA initiated the required Environmental Impact Study. Images of Camden’s proposed spaceport provided at the hearing were conveniently similar to SpaceX’s $100 million Texas spaceport and included a landing pad not found at the SpaceX site. But Camden’s Economic Summary says we will build our spaceport for $7 million. It will not be the same as the images they have shown us for two years.

Pictures of work-horse rockets from established companies convinced many Camden citizens that our officials had a big deal working. The images are important because that is what people wanted to believe is brewing for Camden County. After two years of promotion costing more than $8,000 a month, it is easy to see why people have a certain grand impression.

Those opposed to the spaceport warned for good reasons that medium-lift rockets would be too great a hazard to launch over Cumberland Island. The opposition also pointed out that there was already an excess of launch pads and launch slots in the US and that global competition was fierce for commercial space with India and China leading the way in reducing the cost to access to space.

Camden countered that complicated and expensive access to Kennedy Space Center justified a new spaceport. But almost simultaneously with Camden’s decision to forge ahead, NASA and the Air Force relaxed requirements so that SpaceX, ULA, Orbital ATK and Blue Origin each expanded at Kennedy/Canaveral rather than at Wallops, MARS, Kodiak or Spaceport California, spaceports that together launch fewer than 10 rockets a year. Space Florida’s Shiloh Spaceport project and Environmental Impact Study were mothballed in 2015 because “it was not needed.” Blue Origin and SpaceX built their private launch sites in Texas where they found locations more suitable for their launch needs. Had Camden fit their requirements, either company could have bought the Union Carbide property for pocket change just to hold it for the future.

As the market matured for medium-lift rockets and Camden was not needed, Camden officials have turned to the unproven cubesat launch market. Instead of hoisting 2,000 to 40,000 pounds to orbit these rockets will carry 60 to 400 pounds of micro satellites, each weighing as little as a pound or two. The four test launches of these US rockets have not reached orbit. Vector Space, who launched a test rocket classified by the FAA as an amateur rocket in Camden on August 23, is one of the companies trying to become a viable cubesat orbital provider. This is an undeveloped market that is betting that convenience to launch when a cubesat owner desires is worth the 5-10 times greater price than they pay to tag along on a bigger rocket as side cargo as most are launched now.

Camden’s recently released 2-page Economic Summary was actually the complete study. The 2-page Georgia Southern University Economic Study was provided by Camden County without any supporting documentation and Camden County has refused Georgia Open Records Act access to this information. An appeal to the Georgia Attorney General’s office has been initiated to get the public records and parameters provided to GSU so that the information can be vetted for accuracy.

For instance, the value of each SpaceX rocket launch is at least $65 million. The proposed cost of a Vector launch is $1 million including the rocket and all services. This change makes a huge difference in the value of the spaceport to Camden. That amount of money available to Camden County will be a small fraction of $1 million times the maximum 12 launches per year that Camden will be approved for. Keep in mind that the entire American spaceport industry other than NASA spaceports does not launch 10 rockets per year.

And finally, smaller rockets will mean fewer employees. Vector was bold enough to have promised Kennedy and Camden, along with Nova Scotia, that they are interested in launching from their spaceports. It only took a handful of workers in four pickup trucks to launch their rocket. And they were ungrateful enough to announce while they were still in Camden for their August launch that they would build their proposed factory in Tuscon. One week later after testing in Camden, they performed an engine test on their future factory site in Arizona.

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