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The space boom raises environmental questions on Earth

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With the rapid expansion of the commercial space industry, more states are vying to host satellite launch sites and other cargo, hoping to tap into a growing new revenue stream.

But even as proposals for “spaceports” proliferate from Georgia to Maine to Michigan – far from long-established federal launch sites in California and Florida⁠ – they are being pushed back over fears of harming sensitive habitats, the public safety and even drinking water.

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

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

Space experts say the innovation has driven down the cost of rocket launches even as the miniaturization of electronics has enabled much smaller satellites. This means more companies can access space for a wider variety of uses, including mapping, internet access, weather forecasting, agricultural monitoring, environmental sensing, and tracking fleets of vehicles.

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“In the old days, [building a local spaceport] was unreasonable because a launch site meant big, expensive, 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. “We’re seeing smaller satellites, smaller rockets, a move towards reusable space-launch systems that could potentially be more reliable.”

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has paved the way for the commercialization of space, and many local officials see the company’s Starbase production and launch site in Boca Chica, Texas – with its more than 1,600 employees – as the type of economic driver they would like to attract. But Starbase also represents the fears of some environmental groups.

In May, documents released by the US Fish and Wildlife Service showed that SpaceX activity had caused a decline in endangered piping plovers in the habitat surrounding its facility, while potentially harming sea turtles and other shorebirds. Environmental groups have drawn attention to these findings and criticized the agency’s mitigation requirements as insufficient. The FAA issued a notice in June stating that the company should do over 75 environmental adjustments to continue its Starship heavy rocket program.

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Jared Margolis, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit group focused on endangered species, said rocket blasts damaged habitat in the area and the company conducted more flights trial and caused more environmental damage than it had proposed in its original application. for authorization.

“The lesson from Boca Chica is that impacts can be covered up early on, and then what actually happens is much worse than expected, and you have significant habitat and species damage that goes unaddressed,” did he declare. “I’d be worried if I was these local governments with a company coming in saying everything will be fine.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

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

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Several groups are suing to challenge the decision, saying the launches threaten the national coastline of Cumberland Island, a haven for sea turtles and migratory birds. Environmentalists believe that small rockets have a higher risk of misfire, which could blast the island with debris and fuel or even start a forest fire.

“If we need a certain capacity for certain rockets, we should launch them from the safest places and not just license them to anyone who thinks they can meet the minimum criteria,” said Gist, the l environmental lawyer.

This year, Camden County residents voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to block county officials from buying land for the spaceport. As a result, the company owning the land says it is unable to sell to the county, the Associated Press reported.

County Administrator Steve Howard responded with a statement from the county’s external legal counsel, the Robbins firm, which says the referendum is not “legally proper”; County commissioners then sent another statement saying they were suing the owner to close the deal.

Howard also touted “active negotiations” with several launch companies that would produce a return on investment within 12 to 25 months. Another Camden County spokesperson emailed a county-funded study that determined the launches were unlikely to cause a fire on the island.

Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, senior executive director of conservation programs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said Florida’s Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge has also been proposed as a potential spaceport site.

Launches from a site inside the refuge would send rockets over the Canaveral National Coastline, unlike launches at the nearby Kennedy Space Center. She said proposed launch sites, 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 that commercial spaceports seek because there is less human development nearby,” she said.

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

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Gavin Brown, chief executive of the aerospace group, said the spaceport would capitalize on the environmentally friendly launch technologies that are still emerging. He said infrastructure development would be costly, but the benefits could be enormous.

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

But the plan drew attention to environmental concerns. Dennis Ferraro, chairman of the board of Citizens for a Safe & Clean Lake Superior, a community group that opposes the project, pointed to launch failures at other spaceports that have damaged or polluted nearby ecosystems.

“If we start industrializing the shoreline on the shores of Lake Superior, Katy, bar the door. What’s next 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 created agencies or public-private partnerships to develop the space industry. This year, Maine lawmakers voted to establish the Maine Space Port Corp., a public-private partnership that will seek to create a complex that hosts launches, research and development operations, and data analytics businesses. Backers say Maine’s location makes it ideal for launches into polar orbit.

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

But some in Maine are wary.

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, fearing that launching operations on a nearby island would interfere with their work and damage their equipment, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Some analysts question the economic viability of spaceports.

“There are 14 licensed spaceports in the United States, and most of them don’t see traffic,” said Phil Smith, program manager and principal analyst at BryceTech, an analytics and analytics firm. engineering. “Taxpayers want to see a return on investment, and they haven’t seen it. Much of the space industry’s growth comes from big batches of small satellites on big rockets.

James Causey, executive director of the Global Spaceport Alliance, a membership organization that supports the planning and operation of such launch sites, countered that skeptics underestimate how quickly the commercial space industry is on its way. to develop oneself.

“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.