Camden County, Georgia, nestles into the extreme southeastern portion of the state, wedged between the Florida state line to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. It is a county of just over 50,000 people, dotted by only a handful of tiny towns, a place where the biggest employer, by far, is a U.S. Navy submarine base.
Camden County is a quiet place, worlds away — or some 300 miles (482 kilometers) — from the bustle of Atlanta, and one in which more than 20 percent of the county's almost 800 square miles (2,071 square kilometers) consists of low-lying marshes, rivers, inlets and other largely undisturbed, pristine wetlands.
Yet this county, if the vision of a few upward-looking local politicians and business leaders ever is realized, could become much more. Camden County could become home to a major spaceport, a literal launching pad that will boost America's ever-expanding reach into space and carry the fortunes and future of the county, and much of the state, with it.
It's a head-in-the-clouds dream, certainly, years in the making. And as it is with all our forays into space, it begins on the ground.
An Audacious Vision
Steve Howard's job is to sell people on Camden County's spaceport — Spaceport Camden — where rocket-based payloads will be launched into orbit for visionaries like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. As the idea is now structured, Spaceport Camden will not handle manned (or, more accurately, human) payloads. The payloads, for now, will be satellites that will provide communications and other space-based info to commercial and government customers.
The payoff to Camden County and the state of Georgia could be millions in annual revenue and potentially hundreds of new jobs between the spaceport itself and supporting industries. It could mean more career opportunities in a tech-emerging state that would prevent talent grown in incubators like Atlanta's Georgia Tech (which has the No. 2 aerospace engineering program in the nation) from leaving the state. It would mean innovation, prestige, and a national and international cachet that could make Georgia a leader in the aerospace sector.
Howard, the Camden County administrator, is also the Spaceport Camden executive project lead, and has been since January 2014. In his LinkedIn bio, he says he is "working to realize Spaceport Camden's vision of developing a world-class spaceport through a public-private partnership that will establish Camden County as the commercial space center of the United States. Spaceport Camden is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that will inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers while creating aerospace and supply chain jobs, as well as bringing tourism dollars to the region."
Selling a Spaceport
In reality, Howard is selling. He is selling Camden County as the next, say, Houston, or the next Kennedy Space Center, the next bigger, better U.S. spaceport, something vital to regional business interests, national security and a great place to bring the kids on vacation.
Camden will compete with spaceports in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico (Spaceport America); Mojave, California (the Mojave Air & Space Port); Watkins, Colorado (the Colorado Air and Space Port); Kodiak, Alaska (the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska); Burns Flat, Oklahoma (the Oklahoma Spaceport); Wallops Island, Virginia (the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport) and many others; a few established, some struggling and some, like Camden County's, still a dream.
It's already a crowded space, but one that the Camden County Joint Development Authority — at the urging of the Camden County Board of Commissioners — jumped into at least a decade ago. Howard, who has been in local government for more than 20 years, practically breaks into song about Camden County's potential.
"For us, it's never been really about the launching. It's the innovation, the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] part, all these variety of things that we talk about," Howard says in a telephone interview. "You've heard of the Silicon Valley? The goal is to create the Silicon Marsh."
The Challenges Ahead
The race for space never has been easy. It's time-consuming and costly. In a small county without a lot of business, spending taxpayer money on something that is perceived by some to be a risk hits home. There are those who believe that the money the county already has spent on this dream — by some estimates, more than $10 million — would be better used on other, more practical and earthbound projects.
Safety objections have been raised, too. Projected vertical launches from the 11,600-acre (4,694-hectare) Camden Spaceport will arc over nearby Cumberland Island, Little Cumberland Island and the Cumberland Island National Seashore. Though the area is not heavily populated, launches from Camden would pose a significant risk to life, property and the environment of the fragile wetlands, according to one of the spaceport's most vocal detractors.
Steve Weinkle, who lives in Camden County and runs the anti-spaceport site spaceportfacts.org (which has estimated that $10 million already has been spent on the spaceport), writes that, "launches from Spaceport Camden will be the first time the FAA, Air Force or NASA allows rocket launches over civilian population, residences, U.S. interior waterways, and environmentally sensitive tidewaters and USGS Pad-1 Designated Wilderness."
The effect that even successful launches will have on Camden County has been under study for years in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to grant a launch site operator license. The Camden Spaceport modified some of what it was asking for after the draft EIS was returned in 2018, and now proposes to OK only small-launch vehicles at a single, 100-degree trajectory. With the smaller vehicles, they've scrapped plans to land first-stages of the rockets, too.
With the EIS now complete — it wrapped in June 2021 — the Camden Spaceport's fate lies now in the hands of the FAA, which is under direction by Congress "to protect the public health and safety, safety of property, and national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and to encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space launch and reentry activities by the private sector in order to strengthen and expand U.S. space transportation infrastructure." In the Camden Spaceport EIS, the FAA states that granting the launch site operator license is the "preferred alternative." The other alternative is to do nothing; in effect, to reject the idea.
The final issuing of the operating license is pending. The oft-delayed last word from the FAA is now due Dec. 15.
Success Is Uncertain
Even if the folks in Camden County are approved for launch, getting Camden Spaceport up and running is at least a few years off. The FAA still must issue a vehicle operator license to any outfit (SpaceX, say, or Blue Origin) wishing to use Camden Spaceport as a launch site.
And the whole idea that Spaceport Camden will be an immediate, unqualified success, and will pull into its orbit all sorts of development dollars, tourism dollars and the numerous other economic benefits that Howard promises is still anything but certain. Many existing spaceports are struggling to find customers and make ends meet, let alone generate the kind of economic windfall that Howard and the Camden Spaceport backers envision.
Yet the dreamers behind Spaceport Camden press on. They continue to talk with stakeholders around the state and around the space industry. They continue to try to convince the skeptics. They can see this happening. Soon.
"You got to be focused. You got to be driven to the high-priority project," Howard says. "We're close. We're T-minus 1. There's no reason this project shouldn't go."
Until it does, though, until liftoff, Howard and his kind will keep dreaming, keep pushing, keep selling the outrageous vision of a world-class spaceport in sleepy, serene Camden County. Because, when it comes to making it in the space business, dreaming big is the only way to get off the ground.