Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, is a refuge for wildlife, a haven of history, and an oasis for travelers. Due to a recent Federal Aviation Administration ruling, this scenic seashore, a National Park Service unit, is under an overflight zone for rockets bound for space.
The FAA decided on December 20 to issue a license that would allow Camden County, in Georgia’s southeast corner, to construct a launchpad for commercial rockets about five miles from Cumberland Island. Spaceport Camden will now be the nation’s 14th licensed commercial spaceport.
The hotly anticipated decision, which had been delayed several times, placed many people on edge, including county commissioners who have invested nine years and close to $10 million in the plan, supporters who believe it will create jobs and draw tourism, and critics who fear possible environmental impacts, public safety threats, and disruption to public use of the federally protected land.
Coastal advocates are worried about possible harm to endangered species’ nesting and breeding grounds, maritime forests, undeveloped shoreline, and some 9,800 acres of congressionally designated wilderness. Residents are wary of wildfire, falling debris, and water contamination. These concerns about the project are not unfounded. In July, the U.S. Department of the Interior, which administers the National Park Service, reported that a failed launch could result in “fires, explosions, or releases of propellants or other hazardous materials.”
More than habitats are at stake; history is, as well. In the 19th century, Cumberland Island was home to hundreds of enslaved Africans and African Americans who worked the land until the abolition of slavery in 1865. Freed Black residents established their own community on the north end of the island. Now this settlement, including structures central to the island’s Black heritage—including the last above-ground trace of an enslaved plantation workers’ village—rests in vulnerable proximity to the vibrations that may accompany rocket launches.
A quiet legacy
Nestled near a line of southern live oaks, 26 brick hearths and chimney flues in varying states form three parallel rows in a forest clearing. Once affixed to dwellings, these 200-year-old towers are all that remain of a village of enslaved people who labored under the charge of 19th-century cotton magnate Robert Stafford. To the archaeological community, they are an irreplaceable, historic resource for understanding the lives of Black residents of 19th-century Cumberland Island. Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, which encompasses the Georgia Sea Islands, is among the regional stakeholders concerned that the spaceport will endanger fragile testaments to Georgia’s past. To her, they are monuments “that speak to the strife, the wherewithal, and the knowledge” of her ancestors.
“People who visit Cumberland Island might be going more to look at the things that the Carnegies and the Rockefellers and the Candlers have put there,” says Queen Quet (known as Marquetta L. Goodwine before she was elected to her post as Gullah/Geechee head of state). “However, the value of those chimneys is so much more than that. [Our ancestors] were the ones that created those bricks—they were the ones that laid those bricks—so the chimneys themselves have a certain warmth, even though a fire is not lit in them.”
After the Civil War, Black laborers left plantations like Stafford’s and settled on the island’s north end, at what became known as the Settlement. Visitors might recognize the one-room, whitewashed wooden chapel there as the venue where John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married by lantern light in 1996. This is the First African Baptist Church, a praise house at the heart of a community of free Black Cumberland Islanders, dating to the 1890s.
The chapel sits almost directly beneath Spaceport Camden’s rocket trajectory. Built from heart pine, known as “fat lighter” because of its combustibility, and surrounded by highly flammable live oaks, palmettos, and a pine forest, it is considered especially sensitive to wildfires.
Preserving these sites has been a decades-long collaborative effort. Island residents have fundraised and lobbied for their conservation, and the National Park Service has made ongoing attempts to stabilize the Chimneys.
Queen Quet has taken a leading role in bringing national attention to these sites and shining a light on their value to the historical record. In 1996, she founded the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition to advocate for the culture and history of the Gullah and Geechee peoples—descendants of the West and Central Africans who were enslaved in the American South. In 2006, she helped establish the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a congressionally designated national heritage area along the southeast coast.
Launchpad to the stars
Camden County commissioners have proposed launching small, unmanned rockets that transport satellites into orbit for commercial purposes, taking off from a polluted former chemical plant site on the mainland.
In an assessment of the project’s environmental impacts, the FAA identified vibration along with noise and light, but Brian Gist, a lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center, says the agency has failed to connect the dots and explain what impact these factors could have on the island’s wildlife habitats and historic sites.
“The FAA regulations say you can’t issue the launch site operator license until you have a laundry list of issues resolved,” Gist says. “This is a box they have to check before they can make their rocket license decision.” But so far, as he noted in a letter to the FAA in December 2020, the agency “completely omits any discussion of whether ‘above-ground historic properties’ could be damaged by debris from rocket failure or as a result of a wildfire caused by rocket failure.”
In response, county commissioners insist the plan is a safe one and that, based on their risk models, the threats critics fear are exceedingly slim. Island advocates and property owners, though, remain unconvinced. For them, fiery rocket mishaps at other U.S. commercial spaceports have happened too frequently to ignore.
Last September, at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska, a rocket much like the ones Camden County hopes to launch tumbled from the sky and landed nearby in flaming pieces. In August, another attempt skidded sideways for hundreds of yards and then spiraled off-course into the sky. A month later, after a similar rocket failed in the sky over Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, civilians reported small debris scattered in a neighborhood 13 miles from the launchpad—more than double the distance between Camden County’s proposed site and the Settlement on Cumberland Island.
Commercial space transportation—the business of carrying satellites into space—is growing fast. Analysts expect the industry nearly to triple in value in the next 20 years. In the U.S., Camden County isn’t alone in trying to get its foot in the door. Similar spaceport proposals are currently in discussion, from the Great Lakes region to coastal Maine.
Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, who directs conservation programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, says as these proposals crop up across the country, they only exacerbate existing challenges for U.S. parks. Her organization has opposed Spaceport Camden, stating it could not only disrupt public access to the seashore, but also cause “catastrophic damage” from fire, debris, and contamination. According to Barmeyer, attempting to brace for these chilling possibilities is a massive strain on resources for a department that is already trying to “shore up what it can” in the face of a more acute threat: climate change.
“These coastal parks and their historic structures are under huge risk from rising tides, flooding, and storm surges,” Barmeyer says. “So, the parks are already dealing with disasters and trends they’re seeing day to day, trying to figure out the best path forward based on what they know. Then you add in a risk like a spaceport. It’s just an incredibly high expectation to be prepared for that.”
For nearly 20 years, the NPS has undertaken structural work to keep the chimneys intact. Michael Siebert, NPS chief of resource management at Cumberland Island National Seashore, calls their preservation a top priority, but protecting them without damaging their structure or infringing on their original character is a massive undertaking.
When it comes to the added risks the spaceport could pose, Siebert says the park service remains committed to working with the FAA “to ensure potential adverse impacts to the park are adequately addressed.”
Despite the FAA’s spaceport licensing decision, Queen Quet says her community plans to continue to fight for the protection of their heritage there. “If anything lifts off, let Gullah/Geechee culture be what lifts off,” she says. “We don’t need to go up to space from here on the Sea Islands. We need more preservation on the coast.”
HOW TO VISIT
Some 60,000 seasonal tourists are drawn to the 18-mile-long barrier island archipelago each year to see its cache of archeological structures, feral horses, and secluded beaches. To experience Cumberland Island firsthand, year-round, reserve your seat on the NPS-operated Cumberland Island Ferry from St. Marys, Georgia. If you’re planning to camp overnight, you may need to book camping permits weeks in advance.
The Settlement, home of the First African Baptist Church, is approximately 18 miles north of the NPS ferry dock, along Cumberland Island’s sand-paved main road (formerly a railroad track). Due to the rugged terrain, it can take two hours to get there by bike. The Stafford plantation is about a quarter of the way there, but is currently closed to the public. Another option is to join the NPS’s guided “Land and Legacies” tour ($45), which visits the Settlement and several other historic sites across the island via passenger van. On your way, keep an eye out for some of the more than 300 species of birds, not to mention feral horses, wild boar, and alligators.
For an upscale stay, book a room at the Greyfield Inn, formerly a Carnegie family residence, now a guest house with a private ferry service out of Fernandina Beach, Florida. The inn offers tours of historic sites around the island, including the Settlement.
This story originally published on December 10, 2021. It has been updated to reflect the recent FAA ruling and updated information.
Alexandra Marvar reports on conservation, development, and water politics. Find more of her work here.