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How should the FAA regulate commercial spaceflight?

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Kevin Lang, vice president of the Little Cumberland homeowners association, is shown speaking.

Kevin Lang, vice president of the Little Cumberland homeowners association in Georgia, has been fighting a spaceport proposal that would involve launching rockets over members' homes. Emma Hurt

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The American commercial space industry has had a high-profile moment with billionaires sending themselves to space this summer. But with that growth has come scrutiny of how the Federal Aviation Administration manages the industry.

Right now, the agency is directed to both regulate and “encourage, facilitate, and promote” commercial space, to prevent the stifling of innovation.

Some landowners on Little Cumberland Island, situated off Georgia’s coast, say this dual mandate is putting them at risk.

The Camden County government has been trying for years to get a spaceport license on the mainland, proposing rocket launches over Little Cumberland Island and the larger Cumberland Island to the south, which is managed by the National Park Service. The county commission’s motivation is to diversify the local economy.

“Our vision is a big vision. It’s a bold vision,” Steve Howard, Camden’s county administrator, told the Georgia House Science and Technology Committee in 2016. “To develop a successful, world-class spaceport through a public, private partnership that establishes Camden County as a commercial space center of the United States.”

But Kevin Lang, vice president of the Little Cumberland homeowners’ association, said the project poses an existential threat to their community. Little Cumberland Island is largely undeveloped, thick with saw palmettos and live oaks. The few dozen homes on the island are only accessible by boat.

“We felt like once the FAA understood that there was an active community on this barrier island 5 miles downrange, that the FAA would just decide from a public-safety perspective that this is not going to be acceptable,” Lang said.

But years after Lang and others began lobbying the FAA, the agency seems poised to grant a spaceport license to Camden County because the county has identified one rocket launch path that meets its safety regulations. (Any actual launch would require additional licenses.)

This project is evidence of a problem that Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat and chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he wants to fix.

“There needs to be discrimination in terms of where spaceports are located, to minimally impact the environment, minimally impact the citizens surrounding it,” DeFazio said.

In addition to some residents’ objections, the Camden project has been met with ongoing concerns from the National Park Service, which manages camping and hiking lands beneath the rocket path.

A rendering of the proposed spaceport in Camden County, Georgia. (Courtesy Spaceport Camden)

Those objections, DeFazio said, need to be taken into consideration.

“Everybody wants a spaceport …. and everybody can’t have a spaceport. It’s not safe,” he said.

George Nield, a former FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, defended the dual mandate and the agency’s safety record. The FAA sees its role as not picking “winners and losers. They do not look at the map and say, ‘Oh, I think we ought to have a spaceport here. But not here,’” he said.

Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said during a recent congressional hearing that the agency is not “marketing” for the commercial space industry.

He said the promotional part of its mandate translates into “ensuring that we’ve got the right regulations of the right scope at the right time, to ensure safety while also allowing these companies to innovate and grow and continue to lead on a global stage.”

The FAA may release a decision on Camden County’s spaceport license as soon as this month.

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