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Column: Spaceport Camden – space dreams and nightmares

Steve Winkle is the author of this column: An Atlanta native who was drawn to Camden, Cumberland and the Okefenokee by the tranquility and lack of hustle and bustle. I love my wife, kayaking, neighborhood, and participating in community affairs. I retired a few years ago after a wonderful technical career working in great places around the world.  

This is the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinions of AllOnGeorgia.

At both nights of the Spaceport DEIS Hearings, supporters could not find anything needing correction with the seriously flawed document. But those who attended the Thursday morning meeting of the County-sponsored Environmental Subcommittee would have better understood what the opponents of the spaceport are talking about. The committee members, all of whom take their responsibility seriously, pretty much ripped the FFA apart about the errors, omissions, misrepresentations, contradictions, and violations of law they found throughout the document. “It’s a nightmare,” more than a few have said. The FAA assured the members that they recognized the problems and would ‘fix’ them. My question is, “Wasn’t that what we’ve paid millions for over the past two years?”

Supporter speakers at the DEIS hearings wanted to Comment about the benefits of the spaceport. Mind you, all of the promises of jobs are speculation, and there is not a single spaceport of success they can model. For example: Once upon a time, there was the California Space Authority….

“Governed by a statewide board of directors, the space authority was a private nonprofit group whose headline members included Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop, Grumman and Raytheon. However, it had managed more than $16 million in taxpayer funds since the 1990s.

“Over the past decade, the group’s major focus was the California Space Center, a proposed 500,000-square-foot complex envisioned as providing education, entertainment, cultural activities and office space just outside the only spaceport on the West Coast at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.

“On June 10, 2011, officials announced the CSA Board of Directors had agreed the previous Monday to begin the dissolution process, with members voting in favor of breaking up the organization. According to Janice Dunn, former deputy director, a lack of funding led to the decision. In the past few months, the organization learned an expected $5 million in federal money wouldn’t be coming through.

“The dissolution also signaled an end to plans to develop the California Space Center. Difficulty in establishing the planned space center were also cited as reasons for dissolving the corporation.”

And this is where there’s a spaceport with lots of empty launch pads.

Spaceport Camden supporters will say something like “things are different now. There’re great companies like Vector Space and ABL who really want to come to Camden.” And, “They’re knocking on our door,” says the JDA. Well, Vector made promises to Wallops in October, brought their rocket and pony show to Vandenberg in November, and visited Kodiak spaceport in February promising an orbital launch from Alaska this Summer. Mind you, Vecotor’s “test” rocket launched here in August was an amateur-class rocket with a dummy second stage. They haven’t had a test since. Yet, they’re considered an egg in Camden’s basket. So is ABL Space, an 8-month-old, four-man startup with zero developed technology. Factories with 100’s of $85,000 jobs? In their dreams.

Yes, things are different now. There’s fresh enthusiasm for small rocket launches, but they come with extremely high price tags. The business model is completely unproven because a launch on a Falcon 9 costs about $2,600 a pound and predicting $500 per pound whereas the same satellite to the same orbit on an Electron (the only FAA-licensed small-class rocket) will the cost for a full capacity launch about $9,900 a pound. Small rockets are counting on an unproven market where convenience is worth five to ten times the price.

If the likes of Lockheed, Grumman, Boeing, and Raytheon couldn’t pull it off an economic, jobs, and education development project,  supporters should be asking Steve Howard, Jason Spencer, and Jimmy Starline. “What secrets to spaceport success they possess that the starving spaceports have yet to discover?” Plus, “How are we going to beat the price of a spaceport that has empty launch pads?”

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