Lost in Space
Camden keeps teasing that they have great space companies ready to sign a deal. In a multi-thousand-word story on March 12, Steve Howard told the Tribune & Georgian, “I can tell you we sat here in a conference room in Camden County three weeks ago. I had an aerospace company in here with me, and they were ready to sign.” But they didn’t.
Remember ABL Space?
The Tribune & Georgian might have asked Howard about the month-old news that ABL Space was abandoning their lease and never creating a single job. Nope, nothing has made it to the pages of the Tribune & Georgian. It was just 18 months ago that we read fabulous things about ABL Space being the first rocket company to commit to Camden. Jimmy Starline said, “We are making good on our promise that Spaceport Camden will be a public-private partnership.” It turned out that ABL paid rent on a space Camden JDA had rented for them. With ABL’s departure, the JDA hopes to sublet the building to a hydroponic grower, which will provide real jobs. All we got from ABL Space and spaceport promoters was a publicity stunt. ABL still hasn’t performed a test launch.
Is there more than 1 small rocket company?
Camden used the “Ventions-type” rocket in its hazard analysis in 2017 for small rockets, so we thought that maybe they were cooking a deal with Astra Space, which had grown out of the bones of Ventions, LLC. Let’s hope not. Astra has had two explosions during its two launches from Kodiak Spaceport. In late 2018, the spaceport had to excavate almost 500,000 pounds of contaminated topsoil after an Astra rocket exploded over the spaceport. In early March, Astra failed to launch during a 16-day window with a $12 million prize on the line. And on Monday, Astra had an accident at Kodiak during their latest launch rehearsal stating the “area is still hazardous and should be avoided.” Their small-class rocket started a grass fire that took 2-1/2 hours to extinguish; damaged the launch pad (“[CEO] estimates repairs to Pad B are in the order of a few weeks to months”), and broke the rocket (“…our team is already hard at work to determine the root cause so that we can improve the vehicle’s design.”) (Link to Source Story)
LA-base Rocket Lab is the only successful small-class orbital rocket company. They have launched 11 times from their own launch site in New Zealand and intend to launch in 2020 from a new launchpad at Wallops MARS spaceport. XCOR and Vector went bankrupt. Remember them? Firefly Aerospace has been mentioned. They've never launched a rocket. Relativity Space? Who?
Astra hasn’t put a point on the board after years of launch attempts, thereby proving the cliché that “space is hard” and space investors can waste money just like County Commissioners.
Space company bankruptcy
Last weekend, Bloomberg Law reported that OneWeb is considering bankruptcy as they laid off employees at their brand-new Kennedy-area factory. Although it has received more than $3.4 billion in financing, they’ve discovered that the entry cost for developing a satellite constellation is enormous while the cashflow is not. Space Florida provided $20 million in incentives to lure the OneWeb factory to Kennedy Space Center. These are smart people who simply misjudged the space industry. (PS: OneWeb has launched 74 US-made satellites from a Russian spaceport on Russian rockets, but Russia has refused to allow them to operate ground stations in Russia, so their satellite constellation is worthless over Russia!) OneWeb had contracted with Virgin Orbit to launch replacement satellites for its constellation from a small-class rocket launched from under a specially-converted Boeing aircraft. In 2017, OneWeb CEO Steckel predicted they would reach profitability in 2022. Last week, a OneWeb spokesperson wouldn’t answer questions about a pending bankruptcy.(Link to Source Story)
Friday Update: Financial Times reports that OneWeb will retain only a small number of its 500 employees after failing to obtain additional financing from investors to continue building out its satellite broadband constellation. The company may file bankruptcy as early as today. SpaceNews.com reports, “A bankruptcy filing would add OneWeb to a list of companies that ran out of money trying to launch and operate large numbers of communications satellites in low Earth orbit.”
Late Friday Update:
Jim Cantrell, former CEO of Vector Launch, confirms that OneWeb, a far better-financed company than Vector has declared bankruptcy.
Cantrell should know space company bankruptcy since Vector, after its “Making History Again” 2017 launch from “Spaceport Camden,” also declared bankruptcy having never launched a commercial rocket.
Space company lays off everyone
On Monday (also this week), Bigelow Aerospace laid off its remaining employees. Bigelow, a Nevada space company, had developed a successful space habitat that is attached to the International Space Station. Still, they needed much more than the $561 million offered by NASA to take it to the next level. A billionaire backs Bigelow, but a billion only goes so far in the space business. This apparent failure, and other space venture failures like the Vector and XCOR bankruptcies, have all occurred during while Camden pursues its spaceport license. (Link to Source Story)
Is it believable that Steve Howard and Jimmy Starline have figured out the secret to spaceport success that has eluded all other commercial spaceports? Is it possible for them to create more than a handful of low-paying maintenance jobs for an empty spaceport?
Adding to the confusion
A very troubling part of the March 12 Tribune & Georgian story was the county’s response to the question about the contamination on the Union Carbide property, “What risks does the landfill pose to the county?”
From the story: “Officials said the county’s purchase option agreement on the Union Carbide property at the east end of Harrietts Bluff does not include the hazardous waste landfill that the company is required by law to monitor and mitigate.” Howard continued, “The county never takes possession of the hazardous waste landfill … (The pollution) is something they are addressing already. That’s something (Union Carbide is) responsible for.”
This is merely poor reporting from the Tribune & Georgian on the wrong issue. Since 2015, we’ve known the 58-acre landfill is not part of Camden’s purchase. It’s the almost 4,000 acres that Camden WILL buy, and our officials’ insistence on secrecy about the deal that has taxpayers worried. The story never mentions that taxpayers must buy a $10 million Environmental Liability Policy to cover damages to Union Carbide. If there’s no risk, why is that necessary, and more importantly, what does it cost? The liability policy will be due on Day 1, whether Camden has a rent-paying spaceport tenant or not. And are our risks limited to ten million dollars? Under the law, that’s not likely and anything over would be full burden on Camden County taxpayers.
Last year, we were astonished to learn at a Commissioners Public Meeting that least two of our commissioners, Blount and Casey, we’re NOT aware of this requirement. But we had read it in 2015 in the unredacted section of the Purchase Option Contract.
Are they willfully blind, painfully uninformed, or ... ?
Just two weeks ago, Commission Vice-chair Gary Blount told the Tribune & Georgian, “We’re not stopping now.” He added, “There is nothing out there that we see that we are aware of that we feel we are not going to be successful.”
We’ve obtained a January 2020 Georgia Environmental Protection Division preliminary report that identifies an astounding 48 previously unknown possibly contaminated waste drum sites that would become spaceport property. The EPD required the latest, more thorough testing on the spaceport site because of the Environmental Covenant covering the entire Union Carbide property.
The new, suspect locations are in addition to any undocumented, still undiscovered waste sites where
truckloads or barrels of contaminants and explosives may have been dumped or poured over 40 years. No EIS environmental investigation has been done of the Bayer property where more than 8.6 million pounds of pollutants were released. (Source: See Bayer Pollutants document)
The Tribune & Georgian says the Bayer property is still part of the Commissioners’ spaceport plans. Is it possible that Commissioner Blount was unaware of the latest environmental discoveries almost two months after the report was issued? We are certain that these new sites were not included in the multi-million dollar Draft EIS that remains unfinished.
The risk of undiscovered waste sites is a big problem for Camden officials and county taxpayers because the unknown liabilities could result in tens or hundreds of millions in costs. The Tribune & Georgian failed to address this real concern. Instead, the paper asked about the ‘landfill,’ which is a red-herring because even though we are liable for millions if the spaceport damages the landfill, we will not own it. We’re worried about the undiscovered, contaminated sites spread over a couple of square miles of forests waiting to be discovered by an unwary bulldozer operator.
Wasn't this enough warning?
The Tribune & Georgian wrote, “All three [County] officials said they believe the license should have been granted to Camden County a long time ago.”
The Commissioners and the newspaper appear to have already forgotten the December 16, 2019, FAA letter to Jimmy Starline warning him,
“Even with the proposed narrowing of your application scope, there is no assurance the FAA will make a favorable license determination in view of the issues raised above.” (Source: FAA Tolling Letter )
Camden taxpayers do not have another dollar to waste on this folly.