These historic sites may soon be in a rocket’s flight path

On Cumberland Island, conservationists fear a new threat to the island’s vulnerable landmarks: rocket launches overhead.

By Alexandra Marvar
Published 13 Dec 2021, 11:16 GMT
Carnegie Mansion Cumberland Island
Feral horses graze near Dungeness, the ruins of a mansion built by Lucy and Thomas Carnegie in the 1880s. It’s one of dozens of historic sites on Georgia’s Cumberland Island that would be under the flight path of a proposed spaceport on the state’s mainland.
Photograph by Hunter McRae, T​he New York Times, Redux

Cumberland Island, off the coast of the U.S. state of Georgia, is a refuge for wildlife, a haven of history, and an oasis for travellers. Pending a December decision by the Federal Aviation Administration, this scenic seashore, a National Park Service unit, could be something else, as well: a protected island in an overflight zone for rockets bound for space.

The FAA is expected to decide this month whether 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. If approved, Spaceport Camden would be the nation’s 14th licensed commercial spaceport.

(The remote Scottish landscape is set to be the U.K.'s first spaceport.)

The hotly anticipated decision, which has been delayed several times, has many people on edge, including county commissioners who have invested nine years and close to $10 million (£7 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.”

Cumberland Island National Seashore, established in 1972, remains largely undeveloped. Its extensive ecosystem protects hundreds of specifies of wildlife. Conservationists worry that falling debris from rocket launches could spark devastating wildfires that would destroy many of the crucial habitats on the island.
Photograph by Peter Frank Edwards, Redux

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.

If the plan is approved, 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.

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 laboured 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. To Queen Quet, 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 labourers left plantations like Stafford’s and settled on the island’s north end, at what became known as the Settlement. Visitors might recognise 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.

Built in 1893, the First African Baptist Church served as a place of worship and community center for freed slaves and their decedents who lived on the north end of the island.
Photograph by Dawna Moore, Alamy Stock Photo
These 200-year-old chimneys are all that remain of a village of enslaved people who worked for 19th-century cotton magnate Robert Stafford.
Photograph by Stephen B. Morton, T​he New York Times, Redux

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 stabilise 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 Centre 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.

Sprawling live oaks frame a path through Cumberland’s maritime forest.
Photograph by Kimara Wilhite, Alamy Stock Photo

“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 spiralled 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 neighbourhood 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 organisation 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.”

Whatever the outcome of 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.”

Alexandra Marvar reports on conservation, development, and water politics. Find more of her work here.

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