Can the Commercial Space Industry and National Parks Get Along?

Spaceports and wildlife refuges have traditionally gone hand in hand. But with so many new commercial launch sites in the works, it's time to ask whether nature can handle the 21st century space race.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Photo: SpaceX)
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

For decades, the U.S. space program has enjoyed an unlikely—yet mostly successful—coexistence with some of the most pristine coastal environments on the continent. NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, for example, is surrounded by a wildlife sanctuary on Florida’s “Space Coast” that is home to bald eagles as well as endangered species of panthers and manatees.

Traditionally, the large tracts of land and coastal disturbances required to launch rockets and shuttles were justified by the fact that such land would be protected and guaranteed to remain quiet the rest of the year. But now, with investment pouring into the nascent but promising $250 billion commercial space industry, supporters and opponents are clashing over where the new spaceports should be located and where they shouldn't. Two recently proposed commercial spaceports in Florida and Georgia are raising the ire of wildlife and wilderness advocates who question whether the increase in commercial space exploration, and the infrastructure required to support it, is endangering national parks.

Spaceport Camden, just north of the Florida-Georgia border and a few miles from Cumberland Island National Seashore, could occupy up to 12,000 acres of land and house facilities to test, manufacture, and launch rockets. Farther south, the 200-acre Shiloh Launch Complex, within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Kennedy Space Center, could add to an already busy space operation on Cape Canaveral. 

Each site would prompt “temporary evacuations, noise pollution, visual impairment for seashore visitors, safety concerns for visitors and wildlife, water pollution from rocket fuel and debris, and potential damage to historic resources,” according to a blog post on the website of the National Parks Conservation Association written by Sarah Barmeyer, NPCA senior managing director of conservation programs. “It’s hard to imagine securing reservations six months in advance to camp at Cumberland Island and having that unique wilderness experience on a nearly deserted island get interrupted by evacuations due to rocket launches.”

On the contrary, says Camden County commissioner Steve Howard, who is serving as the project lead for Spaceport Camden. The proposed site, a former industrial park, hosted a massive rocket test launch in 1965 and its launch infrastructure is largely in tact. Howard believes the remaining infrastructure, as well as its location right off the interstate, make it a prime home for a spaceport.

The proposed Camden installation would initially host vertical rocket launches at least three times a year, and create hundreds of jobs and help attract outside business to Camden, Howard says. It’s a “smart-growth project” in the vein of NASA’s spaceports that would “create economic opportunity and at the same time have a positive effect on the environment” by conserving land adjacent to the launch pads that might otherwise be developed. The land in question Howard calls “a stranded asset” with no purpose.

If the project meets National Environmental Policy Act requirements—the environmental impact statement, or EIS, is still open for public comment, according to FAA spokesman Hank Price—Howard says construction could begin within three years.

The balance isn’t always perfect. Last November, the Environmental Protection Agency fined NASA $50,660 due to federal hazardous-waste and clean-air violations at the Wallops Island spaceport in Virginia, which is adjacent to the 373-acre Wallops Island National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine plot of marshland and open space roughly 30 miles south of Assateague Island National Seashore.

Charlie Venuto, a board member with the privately funded Merritt Island Wildlife Association in Florida, spent 30 years working in environmental compliance for the space-shuttle program at the Kennedy Space Center. He believes nature refuges adjacent to spaceports have positively impacted the land by limiting development. “Otherwise you’d see condos there,” he says.

However, Venuto is not optimistic about Florida's Shiloh Launch Complex, which he says amounts to spaceport sprawl. While the site is within the Kennedy Space Center complex, it sits roughly 10 miles away from the principal launch pads and has no existing infrastructure related to the industry. Venuto thinks Space Florida, the state of Florida’s aerospace economic development agency that is proposing the project, should look at repurposing existing launch pads closer to the Kennedy epicenter instead of building a new one.

“To put a launch pad where there’s absolutely no infrastructure and no launch history, on a relatively pristine area, would be a detriment to the environment as well as from a cultural and historical perspective,” Venuto says, citing the plantation ruins that could be destroyed. “There’s already been damage. This area used to have the highest number of birds in the Audubon count, and that number has gone down. Any more takeover of this habitat will just lead to more degradation.”

The FAA is currently in the process of developing a draft EIS for Shiloh. Its release date, Price says, is unknown at this time.

Filed To: EnvironmentNatureWildlifeWildlife RefugeNational Parks
Lead Photo: SpaceX
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