March 3, 2023
Blog written by Cait Sternberg, Director of Outreach & Communications
The United States currently hosts 14 Federal Aviation Administration-licensed industrial rocket launch sites, also known as “spaceports”. Although many of these are underused, or not used at all, the aerospace industry continues to propose the creation of additional spaceports.In addition, these prospective spaceports are in ecologically sensitive areas, despite the serious threats that functioning spaceports pose to the ecosystems they are lodged in. One of these areas is off the coast of Lake Superior in Marquette County, Michigan, and the other is adjacent to Cumberland Island National Seashore in Camden, Georgia. Residents of Camden have heeded the warnings of communities damaged by spaceports and stood in strong opposition to proposed Spaceport Camden. As Marquette County and Lake Superior face the threat of a spaceport it is crucial to look at the experiences of other communities to observe the true impacts of spaceports and consider taking action to oppose them.
One existing spaceport that serves as an example of the impacts of rocket launches is the Pacific Spaceport Complex. The Pacific Spaceport Complex opened for commercial and military use in 1998 on the coast of Kodiak Island in Alaska. In the past 25 years, the spaceport has held 31 attempted rocket launches, 12 of which resulted in failure. In 2018, two Astra rockets failed shortly after launch, fell back to earth, and exploded on state land. Unspent rocket fuel bled into the ground, contaminating 230 tons of soil. Contaminated soil was excavated from the site and heated to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, a process that not only burns off the fuel but also alters the structure of the soil and kills the organisms living in it. This process leaves behind soil that should not be returned to the natural environment, but rather to a landfill. In January of 2023, an 88-foot-tall ABL rocket failed just 11 seconds after launch. It exploded with 95% of its fuel on board, releasing 5,200 gallons of fuel into the environment according to Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
The impacts of the Pacific Spaceport Complex continue to stretch further into the Kodiak community than locals anticipated. Fossil Beach, as well as other popular outdoor recreation areas, are accessible by a single road that runs near the complex. Historically, locals and tourists have always had access to these recreation areas, but as the complex expands its footprint, that access is under threat. In July and August of 2022, Pacific Spaceport Complex began filing requests to expand road closures- including the road that makes these various outdoor recreation areas accessible. People are now being stopped at switchbacks en route to the areas and being told to turn around. Residents have also experienced unexpected closures outside of launch windows and without notice. Despite Kodiak Borough’s Mayor contacting the Alaska Department of Transportation to voice his deep concern over the closures, so far no plan to stop the closures has been disclosed by Alaska Aerospace.
The spaceport has also imposed water and air closures. Paddy O’Donnell, president of the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, brought attention to the spaceport’s closure of an area of water where dozens of boats fish for pollock. In his address to the Kodiak Borough Assembly, he said, “They should have organized this launch around a timeframe when it wasn’t impacting such an important economic driver for Kodiak.”
The impacts of the Pacific Spaceport Complex serve as a cautionary tale for residents and tourists of Marquette County, Michigan. The Pacific Spaceport Complex has demonstrated that pollution from rocket failure is a serious threat, and frequent rocket failure is a strong potential. Although the aerospace industry claims to be advancing, the Pacific Spaceport Complex is proof that rocket failure rates are not slowing down. Since 2020, 5 out of 7 launches from Kodiak have failed. From their story, we’ve learned to be distrustful of the aerospace industry’s attempts at greenwashing and hiding the true impacts of rocket launch facilities.
On the other side of the country, Camden, Georgia has been facing and fighting the threat of a spaceport in their community. The Camden County Board of Commissioners has spent a decade and $12 million of taxpayer money on a spaceport proposal. But the resources poured into this proposal do not change the fact that it is dangerous for both the environment and the community. The trajectory of the launches would put rockets flying over the Cumberland Island National Seashore and residential homes, a danger exacerbated by the high probability of rocket failure. A resident of Little Cumberland Island, geologist Jim Renner told NBC, “This is our Yosemite. If somebody said they were going to start launching rockets in the middle of Yosemite, heads would roll.” Residents like Jim could not accept a future where rockets were launched from “their Yosemite”, so they took action.
Camden residents adorned their community with yard signs reading “NO SPACEPORT: Taxpayers Against Camden Spaceport”. They started a petition to put the spaceport proposal on the ballot. After the petition gained over 3,500 signatures from registered voters, the matter of approving or denying the spaceport plan was successfully brought to a referendum. The residents of Camden made their opposition to the spaceport clear, with 72% of the vote being against the rocket launch proposal. The county Board of Commissioners attempted to salvage the proposal but has not yet been successful. The board made a move to have the referendum declared invalid, but was rejected by the Georgia Supreme Court, which stated in February of 2023 that challenging the referendum “would violate well established tenets of constitutional interpretation.” Persuaded by the 72% of voters opposed to the spaceport proposal, the Union Carbide Corporation rescinded its agreement to sell its property to Camden County for spaceport construction.
The preventative action taken by Camden residents gives hope to the residents of Marquette County opposing their local spaceport plans. From their story, we’ve learned that knowing your rights, being diligent, and getting unified involvement are essential tools in protecting our community. We’ve learned that the aerospace industry is powerful, but communities are not defenseless, and defeating spaceports is possible.
We have the opportunity to envision two different futures for Marquette County. A Kodiak-esque future of pollution and closure, or a Camden-esque future where deliberate community action fuels triumph over dangerous industrialization. Imagining Kodiak’s situation brought to Marquette County, we think of the challenges that frequent closure to County Road 550 would bring. We think of how valuable access to our beaches is, and of Little Presque Isle sitting just in the shadow of the proposed rocket launch site. We think of the devastation that polluting Lake Superior would bring. These threats are not abstract concepts- they are happening in real communities not too different from ours. The residents of Camden realized this and did not accept it as the vision of their future. Marquette County residents have the chance to follow in their footsteps and be just as successful in keeping our community free of rocket launches. We not only encourage Marquette to prevent the spaceport from coming to fruition, but we also encourage our community to not waste as much time and money as Camden did in the process. $12 million does not need to be spent to know that a spaceport is inappropriate for the shores of Lake Superior. To our community, we ask that you remain diligent and willing to take action when called upon. To our local government decision-makers, we ask that you listen and side with our opposition.
To read more about the Pacific Spaceport Complex and Spaceport Camden, visit:
With more rocket launches comes more cleanup - The Verge
The commercial space industry is betting on launch success from Kodiak, but some locals aren't so sure - KMXT 100.1 FM
Cleanup ongoing at Kodiak’s Spaceport after rocket crash and explosion (adn.com)
10 years and $12 million later, residents fight against spaceport (cnn.com)
Georgia spaceport land deal is off, site owner says | AP News