The Private Race to Space Has Fallout for Protected Lands on Earth

An imminent FAA decision could send rockets over Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore, while in Texas, coastal stewards are alarmed about the growing impacts of SpaceX’s mission to Mars.

On the hike from Carol Ruckdeschel’s homestead to the beach, a freshly fallen live oak sprawls across our path. This tree sprung up some three centuries ago, Ruckdeschel estimates, back when Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore was a patchwork of indigo, Sea Island cotton, and rice plantations cut through by a railroad. She rests her hand on its trunk for a moment before we pass underneath. We are in protected wilderness, so now in its afterlife, she says, the oak can provide sustenance for a number of local woodpecker species.

We head to the island’s northernmost beach for a view of the mainland of Camden County, Georgia, just five miles across the Cumberland River. Ruckdeschel, 80, is wearing worn rubber boots, cargo pants, and pigtail gray braids. She has been the resident naturalist here since 1973, when she first moved to the island’s wild north end in the employ of a legacy landowner. Over four decades of fighting for the preservation of wilderness she has encountered all manner of possible threats, from offshore dredging to residential development. This is the first time she has ever encountered a spaceport.

Plans are underway to launch rockets over the oyster-strewn beach on which we stand. The proposed launch site is a 12,000-acre brownfield riddled with unexploded ordnances that abuts a toxic landfill. Since 2012, Camden County officials, with the guidance of space industry consultants, have invested millions of dollars in a vision to purchase, clean up, and transform the property into “Spaceport Camden.” This month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to decide whether the site will receive an operator license—the final step before county commissioners can finalize the land purchase and begin securing partnerships with developers, rocket manufacturers, and satellite companies.

For decades going to space was a public-sector endeavor. But in recent years, private companies—like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX—have gone all in on moon tourism and Mars settlement. Spaceport Camden’s planners hope to target a different niche in space business: launching unmanned, small-lift vehicles designed to transport GPS and radar satellites, a fast-growing industry now valued at $350 billion.

The project’s journey to this point has been a long one, in part because it has roused such controversy: In an unprecedented move, vertical-launch rockets would fly over a national seashore and populated areas. While a first, Camden County’s commissioners say this flight path is safe. They promise well-paying jobs and tourism, and ultimately, they say, this is an opportunity the largely rural area—with few other economic drivers—can’t afford to miss.

Others see it differently. Residents like Ruckdeschel and more than a dozen regional and national environmental advocacy organizations call the plan “flawed,” enormously “risky,” and generally “a bad idea.” Within a few miles downrange of the would-be launch site are campgrounds, public beaches and trails, and a small community of dozens of private homes. The path would also cross above parts of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, drawing the opposition of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition.

Critics worry about disruption not just to residential communities and tourism, but also to delicate natural ecosystems. The national seashore is crucial habitat for more than a quarter of the state’s endangered loggerhead sea turtles; for North Atlantic right whales (of which only a few hundred remain); and for hundreds of species of migrating and breeding birds, including Least Terns, Piping Plovers, Brown Pelicans, Red Knots, Wood Storks, American Oystercatchers, and the increasingly rare Saltmarsh Sparrow, to name a few. Many of these species are, as Georgia Audubon conservation director Adam Betuel puts it, “on the razor’s edge.”

Noise could stress wildlife, opponents say, and 24-hour lights could brighten dark skies and risk throwing migratory birds, sea turtles, and other wildlife off course. More acute issues include fire, falling debris, and rocket fuel contamination of federally protected marshlands and waterways. Explosions or crashes—like those seen at other U.S. spaceports—could pose problems that are harder to foresee, says the Southern Environmental Law Center, such as triggering undocumented underwater munitions or spreading preexisting groundwater contamination near the proposed site.  

Those against the plan are dubious of the spaceport developers’ claim that no mandatory closures or evacuations will be required around launches—especially since such closures are routine at other coastal spaceports. Opponents are also unsettled by the county’s proposal to use heat-sensing drones to carry out required human headcounts in advance of a launch. Prohibited in wilderness and banned in park airspace under a 2014 rule, the use of drones would require the sign-off of the National Park Service.

Park officials, however, have not been eager for the project to advance. The agency’s regional director, Stan Austin, has noted the project’s environmental and public safety risks in two letters to the FAA. In 2015 he strongly recommended that planners consider alternate sites. In December 2020, amid continuing backlash over the plans, he emphasized that the agency sees the project as “a significant risk.” In a statement to Audubon in November, the national seashore’s chief of resource management, Michael Siebert, reiterated that proposed launches would pose an “unacceptable risk to Cumberland Island National Seashore, based on available information.”     

In the end, Park Service dissent may not be enough to convince the FAA to deny Spaceport Camden its operations license—an alarming potential precedent as conversations about spaceports gain momentum across the country.

It’s no coincidence that the proposed Georgia spaceport is so near to a national seashore. Since the FAA opened its Office of Commercial Space Transportation in 1984, the division has overseen 15 commercial and private spaceports in the United States, plus another three government-operated facilities. Today a number of potential new sites, including in Michigan on Lake Superior, and on the coast of Maine, are under discussion, with more abroad. Elsewhere around the world, from Scotland to Indonesia, communities are also debating spaceport proposals. Most prospective locations for vertical launches have one feature in common: access to open water, which offers the broadest range of trajectories. 

Coastal real estate was a priority from the start of the global space race. NASA acquired tens of thousands of acres of Florida’s undeveloped Merritt Island to establish Kennedy Space Center there in the 1960s. In partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NASA created Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to the launch areas. Today the wildlife haven encompasses several wading bird rookeries, more than 10 active Bald Eagle nests, and habitat for an estimated 2,500 Florida Scrub-Jays, which live only in Florida. The FWS shuts down public access for launches, and its rangers have called the refuge “a very unusual marriage between technology and nature.”

Today’s space race is taking place in a very different era. Wildlife habitats are being depleted, and human presence has sprawled. Developable land on America’s coasts—especially large, uninterrupted tracts—is ever harder to come by. About 10 percent of coastal land is managed by the National Park Service. For Emily Jones, southeast regional director at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), making sure protected coastal lands remain untouched by development is a constant battle—one that is further complicated by the commercial space industry. The organization is now monitoring several spaceport applications.

One of the biggest challenges for regulators, land and community stewards, and commercial entities lies in balancing the risks and the benefits of what may soon be a trillion-dollar industry. The National Environmental Policy Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and other laws should help disqualify projects that infringe upon national parkland and other protected sites with assaults such as excessive noise, increased risk of fire, debris, or pollution. But Camden County’s spaceport proposal has, so far, barreled forward despite myriad apparent legal conflicts, Jones says. Further complicating matters, the small-lift commercial rocket industry is fairly new, so safety data on the rockets Spaceport Camden hopes to launch are relatively scant.  

“These are our most special places,” Jones says. “If we don’t protect them, we could lose them. These areas are just too fragile, and too valuable to put at risk.”

Camden County commissioners say their vision is to “meet or exceed” the environmental best practices employed at the Kennedy Space Center. But while Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is next door to the facility, rockets don’t pass directly overhead. In fact, in 2014, when the state of Florida’s space development organization embarked on plans to build a commercial spaceport that would send rockets across the island and pose a risk to the refuge’s unique ecosystem, the refuge’s rangers and conservation advocates opposed the plan.

Ultimately, a company that those Florida developers reportedly hoped would utilize the site— SpaceX—chose a different location at Texas’s southernmost tip, and the plan fell apart. Seven years later, SpaceX’s Texas facility has become a cautionary tale.

SpaceX’s Boca Chica Launch Site, nestled on private land into a collage of Gulf Coast state park, wildlife refuge, and wildlife management areas, received the FAA’s approval in 2014. Sharon Wilcox, senior Texas representative at Defenders of Wildlife, says this confluence of terrestrial and marine habitats is unlike any other place in the United States. Birders might come to visit the area’s beaches, marshes, and prairies in search of border specialties like the Aplomado Falcon or the Crested Caracara. But as SpaceX’s goal to reach Mars by 2026 draws closer, the company’s Raptor engines and Falcon Heavy vehicles—which stand taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa—are the species competing for airspace.

When SpaceX first showed an interest in bringing the company to south Texas, local officials embarked on a years-long courtship, hoping the enterprise would boost the economy. Environmental and community advocates pushed back, worried at the time about risk to wildlife habitats and local fisheries.

Since the first SpaceX launches at Boca Chica in 2019, some of the original critics’ worst fears have been realized. The amount of activity at the site is “way beyond the bounds of what anybody imagined there,” says David Newstead, director of the coastal bird program at the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program and conservation chair of Coastal Bend Audubon. This has meant hundreds more cars daily along what he says used to be “one of the loneliest stretches of highway in Texas.” The facilities and their tests and launches have brought noise and nighttime light. They have also brought spectacular explosions.

About 15 of the nation’s estimated 50 remaining ocelots live in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge near Boca Chica. Car collisions are the biggest known threat to the wild cats, Wilcox says, and for this cryptic species, conservationists can only guess about the impacts of increased traffic, not to mention acute threats, like chunks of metal raining from the sky and uncontrolled wildfires. In July 2019, a rocket test sparked a fire that burned 10 acres of Boca Chica State Park. FWS reported that the refuge wasn’t notified about the fire until the next day, at which point flames had died down and flared up again, burning another estimated 130 to 135 acres.

Newstead, who has been working with colleagues to monitor Snowy, Wilson’s, and Piping Plovers near the SpaceX site since 2017, has recorded the decline of these bird populations as activity has increased. Piping Plovers use a mosaic of different habitats around the launch site for large swaths of the year. Newstead’s team tallied a population of 308 birds from 2018 to 2019, and over the next three years that number dropped by 54 percent to 142 individuals. “That survival rate, based on marked birds, is far lower than it needs to be for a sustainable population,” he says. “It’s pretty clear that population has taken a major hit that correlates to the activity at the site.”

While Wilson’s Plover nesting data is limited to just five years, recent numbers are similarly discouraging. Between 2017 and the first launch in 2019, the team documented an average of 10 nesting attempts per year. After a March 2021 explosion while testing the Mars rocket prototype “Starship”—the third such event in two months—debris showered the general area where Newstead and his team monitor. In a lull in rocket tests following a successful launch in April, one nest had managed to take hold. It was the only nest noted that year.

This fall, the FAA conducted a public comment period for an updated assessment of the site’s environmental impacts. But watchdog groups say that’s not enough: A number of national and local groups, such as Defenders of Wildlife and Save Rio Grande Valley (Save RGV), are asking the FAA to order a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement that better takes into account SpaceX’s increased activity beyond the original 2014 agreement with the FAA as well as the new, larger spacecraft the company is deploying.

“Now SpaceX is again proposing significant changes and expansions,” the groups wrote to the FAA in July 2020. “SpaceX is so sure of FAA rubber-stamp approval that they are already advertising employment positions for project expansions for which permitting has not even begun, let alone been approved.” Until the FAA issues a revised EIS, the groups said, "the FAA should prohibit any expansion in either SpaceX’s footprint or testing activities at its Boca Chica site.” 

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment about its environmental impacts but the company has previously denied allegations that it has closed down public lands in excess of its permits. The FAA has stated it has tried to work cooperatively with SpaceX while also warning the company about its construction activities on the site getting ahead of the agency’s approval process. Meanwhile Elon Musk, on Twitter, has said the FAA’s space division has “a fundamentally broken regulatory structure” that impedes the company’s reach for Mars.  

Meanwhile, launches at Boca Chica continue. Preparations are underway for a January 2022 attempt to launch a Starship into orbit for the first time, and SpaceX leadership is all but expecting another mishap. “There's a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful,” Musk recently said, “but we’ll make a lot of progress.”

To determine the impacts of this progress, SpaceX is required by the terms of its agreement with the FAA to conduct its own wildlife and avian monitoring and has partnered with a local university. Newstead says, however, the company’s surveying methodology takes a “very broad, long-term approach”—one that would take years to detect trends in bird populations. (SpaceX also did not respond to a request for comment about its wildlife monitoring.)      

For his part, Newstead is frustrated by the dramatically reduced access to the nine-mile stretch of beach and state parkland within SpaceX's testing territory. In June, Save RGV appealed to the local county about excessive restrictions of access to public land, and in October, the group filed a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the beach closures under state law. The closures have made public use—including monitoring by Newstead’s team—almost impossible. “I’m looking at all of these closure notices, and I’m having a pretty hard time understanding how we’re going to get any work done,” he says. “They’ve essentially privatized the area.”

In Camden County, Georgia, the spaceport debate has lasted for nearly nine years and cost taxpayers more than $10 million in consulting, marketing, and lobbying fees, among other planning-related expenses. The chairman of the Camden County Board of Commissioners, Gary Blount, waves off concerns, calling them the hyperbolic complaints of “a handful of vacation homeowners and environmentalists.” The proposal not only meets the FAA’s safety requirements, planners say, but “significantly exceeds” them.      

Spaceport Camden is not likely to be the next Boca Chica. The small, unmanned vehicles intended for the site are far from the scale, magnitude, or potential for destruction carried by SpaceX’s larger starships. But the industry is young, new technology is developing quickly, and without a confirmed business plan in place, the facility’s future is impossible to foresee. In the meantime, a wildfire sparked by a launch gone awry could decimate maritime and live oak forests, Carol Ruckdeschel says. Pollution could destroy a marsh ecosystem. And she wonders how a neighboring spaceport could change the management of the island’s wilderness and all that surrounds it.

Beyond these what-ifs, it is Newstead's day-to-day experience in the shadow of SpaceX that she dreads most: a commercial venture capitalizing on, and declining to respect, public lands on which many threatened species rely. She sits at a picnic table behind her Cumberland Island homestead. A Rose-breasted Grosbeak perches on a branch overhead just long enough for us to take in the pop of red against the canopy. “How logical is it that a private party can disrupt something that belongs to the public?” she asks.

Looking to the future, environmental advocates know the space industry is taking off, but many hope to see it grow in a way that doesn't infringe on protected lands here on Earth. Experts at the National Parks Conservation Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center suggest expanding operations at existing, underused infrastructure before developing new sites. Others point to a longer-term possibility to reduce pressure: developing spaceports out at sea. Private companies, including SpaceX, are already experimenting with developing floating launch facilities and landing pads on barges and offshore oil rigs.

As Ruckdeschel and her neighbors await the federal decision that could change their stretch of coastline forever, Jones focuses on the big picture. “Does this mean we’re going to start launching rockets over Cape Lookout or Cape Hatteras or Cape Cod?” she says of the precedent that could be set by an FAA approval. “I would be surprised, but this obviously surprised us.”