Space and Nature – An Unlikely But Harmonious Marriage

Throughout the history of spaceflight in the United States, rockets and nature have had a relationship of balance, harmony and mutual benefit. Spaceport Camden is currently undergoing the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) licensing process to obtain a launch operator license. This process includes a diligent environmental review and produces a detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and implemented under FAA rules. Currently, the FAA is analyzing all of the public and government agency comments that have been submitted to them during the scoping and comment period that included a well-attended public meeting held in Camden County. During this review, the FAA evaluates everything from air quality and hazardous materials to coastal resources, noise and land use to biological and historical resources.

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Working closely with other government agencies, such as the National Park Service (NPS) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the FAA is currently reviewing numerous environmental factors related to the proposed spaceport. It will then provide its findings and further guidance in the Draft EIS, which is expected for 2017. Once the Draft EIS is released, the public will once again have the opportunity to provide feedback before the final EIS and Record of Decision (ROD) is issued by the FAA. This comment period will also include another local public meeting on the matter, providing ample chances for residents to comment.

The FAA licensing process ensures that environmental concerns are diligently evaluated, and Spaceport Camden will conform to these extensive FAA and NEPA regulations. Across the United States, there are numerous spaceports that coexist in balance with nature, and it is this kind of balance that Spaceport Camden is setting out to achieve.

Kennedy Space Center in Florida, undoubtedly the most famous spaceport in the world, sits on a barrier island, which includes the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge and is adjacent to the Canaveral National Seashore.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1963 as an overlay of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center for the protection of migratory birds.  Consisting of 140,000 acres, the Refuge provides a wide variety of habitats: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks that provide habitat for more than 1,500 species of plants and animals and 15 federally listed species.”

These species include the endangered gopher tortoise, the West Indian manatee, the Eastern indigo snake as well as a number of endangered sea turtles, such as the Atlantic green turtle, the leatherback turtle, the Atlantic ridley turtle as well as the Atlantic hawksbill turtle. Sea turtles are some of the most well-known “visitors” to the center as they flock to the shores of both Merritt Island as well as Canaveral National Seashore to lay their eggs. More than 5,000 sea turtles nest every year on the protected beaches around Kennedy Space Center.

Kennedy Space Center has worked closely with environmental organizations and government agencies to ensure that its most famous annual visitors can lay their eggs undisturbed. This includes extensive efforts to adhere to environmentally responsible lighting, as sea turtles follow the light and would otherwise head towards the center’s buildings instead of the water. Lighting is also an important factor for newly hatched turtles in finding their way into the ocean as they are looking for the bright horizon over the ocean. In Florida alone, beach lights lead millions of hatchlings to their demise, that’s why NASA is working closely with the International Dark Sky Association to best prevent this from happening at Kennedy Space Center by minimizing night time lighting. Spaceport Camden is committed to learning from NASA’s best practices for night time lighting.

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Credit: Steve Trull FWS

Among the refuge’s more than 300 bird species, there are also a number of federally protected species on Merritt Island, including the endangered wood stork and the threatened bald eagle, our national bird. Bald eagles have been nesting on Merritt Island near Kennedy Space Center for more than four decades, averaging more than a dozen different nests per year and often making for interesting photo opportunities. Similar bird habitat protection is envisioned for Spaceport Camden.

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“Even though it is a very unusual marriage between technology and nature, the marriage has lasted more than 40 years,” explains longtime ranger Dorn Whitmore. “And one of the species that really benefits is the bald eagle.”

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service strikes a similar tone in their brochure of Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, stating that,

“The unique relationship the refuge shares with NASA is testimony that nature and technology can coexist and thrive.”

Spaceport Camden is striving for this level of harmonious balance between advancing Georgia’s stake in the next space race and protecting our precious wildlife and coastal beauty.  When the FAA releases its draft EIS, Spaceport Camden will make every effort to eliminate or mitigate the environmental concerns identified.  But if there is one lesson from Kennedy Space Center, it is that with proper planning, space flight and nature can thrive together.

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