The space boom raises environmental issues on Earth

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With the rapidly expanding commercial space industry, more and more states are vying to host launch sites for satellites and other cargoes, hoping to tap into a new and growing source of revenue.

But even as “spaceport” proposals proliferate from Georgia to Maine to Michigan, away from long-standing federal launch sites in California and Florida⁠, they are attracting pushback over fears that they could damage sensitive habitats, public safety and even water. drinking.

Critics warn that the noise and light generated by the launch sites could harm wildlife and that failed launches could spread toxic materials and debris or even cause fires.

“Spaceports have become a popular economic development tool,” said Brian Gist, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, who opposes efforts to establish a launch site in Camden County, Georgia. “But not all locations are a good candidate for a spaceport site and you need to balance economic development with risk to the public and risk to natural resources.”

Space experts say the innovation has lowered the cost of rocket launches even though the miniaturization of electronic components has allowed for much smaller satellites. This means that more companies can access the space for a wider variety of uses, including mapping, internet access, weather forecasting, agricultural monitoring, environmental sensing, and vehicle fleet monitoring.

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“In the past, [building a local spaceport] it was unreasonable because a launch site meant large, expensive and unreliable rockets, “said George Nield, who served as associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration and now runs a consulting business.” smaller satellites, smaller rockets, a move towards reusable space launch systems that could potentially be more reliable. “

Elon Musk’s SpaceX pioneered the commercialization of space, and many local officials see the company’s Starbase production and launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, with its 1,600+ employees, as the kind of budget engine they’d 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 SpaceX’s activity had caused a decline in endangered plovers in the habitat surrounding its facility, potentially harming sea turtles and other shorebirds as well. . Environmental groups drew attention to these findings and criticized the agency’s mitigation requirements as insufficient. The FAA issued a notice in June that the company would have to make more than 75 environmental adjustments to proceed with its heavy-duty Starship rocket program.

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Jared Margolis, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit group focused on endangered species, said the rocket explosions damaged the habitat in the area and that the company conducted multiple test flights. and caused more environmental damage than proposed in its initial application for authorization.

“The lesson from Boca Chica is that impacts can be hidden from the start, and so what actually happens is much worse than expected and there is significant damage to the habitat and species that are not addressed,” he said. “I would be worried if I were these local governments with a company that comes along and says everything will be fine.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

But many local leaders still see the potential in spaceport development. Camden County, Georgia received FAA approval for its spaceport proposal late last year, after years of pushing the project and spending over $ 10 million in taxpayer money to support the floor. County commissioners believe the site, which could launch small commercial rockets, would diversify the local economy.

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Several groups have sued to challenge that decision, saying the launches threaten nearby Cumberland Island National Seashore, a refuge for sea turtles and migratory birds. Environmentalists believe the small rockets have a greater risk of failure, which could blow up the island with debris and fuel or even cause a fire.

“If we need a certain amount of capacity for certain rockets, we should launch them from safer locations 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 prevent county officials from purchasing 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 trustee Steve Howard responded with a statement from the county’s external litigation counsel, the Robbins Firm, that the referendum is not “legally correct”; County commissioners later sent out another statement saying they are suing the property owner to complete the deal.

Howard also touted “active negotiations” with multiple launch companies that would produce a return on investment within 12-25 months. Another Camden County spokesperson sent an email to a county-funded study that found the launches did not pose a risk to causing a fire on the island.

Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, senior chief executive of conservation programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, said the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida was also considered a potential spaceport site.

Launches from a site inside the shelter will send rockets over Canaveral National Seashore, unlike launches at the nearby Kennedy Space Center. He said the launch site proposals, which must avoid populated areas to meet federal safety guidelines, will likely continue to threaten protected coastal parks.

“The same attributes that attract visitors to these national parks are the same things that commercial spaceports are looking at because there is less human development nearby,” he said.

In Michigan, state officials in 2019 awarded a $ 2 million grant to the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association to study the viability of a spaceport on the Upper Peninsula. The proposal includes a vertical launch facility for traditional rockets, a site for horizontal launches – where airplanes take off with a rocket, which releases into the air and propels itself into space – and a command and control center. Advocates say the project could benefit from manufacturing experience in the state’s auto industry and help the state attract and retain talent.

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Gavin Brown, executive director of the aerospace group, said the spaceport will benefit from environmentally friendly launch technologies that are still emerging. He said infrastructure development would be expensive, but the benefits could be huge.

“We’re not trying to get into the space business where it is, we’re trying to play a major role in where space is going,” he said. “There are some things in the testing phase that we are waiting to see if it makes sense to us, and then we can share with people what it is.”

But the plan dismissed environmental concerns. Dennis Ferraro, chairman of the board of Citizens for a Safe & Clean Lake Superior, a community group opposing the project, has indicated that they are launching bankruptcies in other spaceports that have damaged or polluted nearby ecosystems.

“If we start industrializing the shore on the shores of Lake Superior, Katy, bar the door. What are the prospects after a rocket launch site? ”He said.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which awarded the grant, did not make the officials available for an interview.

Other states, including Alabama, Florida, and Maine, have established public-private agencies or partnerships charged with growing the space industry. This year, Maine lawmakers voted to found Maine Space Port Corp., a public-private partnership that will seek to create a complex that houses launches, research and development operations, and data analytics companies. Proponents say Maine’s location makes it ideal for polar orbit launches.

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“The state government had to prove to the investment and business community that it was very serious about increasing state involvement in the new space economy,” said Terry Shehata, executive director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium, a nonprofit group. funded by the NASA grant program to promote aerospace research.

But some in Maine are cautious.

The city 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 questioning the economic viability of spaceports.

“There are 14 licensed spaceports in the United States and most of them see no traffic,” said Phil Smith, program manager and senior analyst at BryceTech, an analysis and engineering firm. “Taxpayers want to see the return on investment and haven’t seen it. Much of the growth in the space industry comes from large 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, argued 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, the demand will be there,” he said.

Stateline is an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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