Florida officials are proposing a site for private companies to launch payloads into space near a federally protected seashore and wildlife refuge that is also home to threatened species, wetlands, hunting lands, a cemetery and a 17th century sugar plantation considered one of the most significant African-American archaeological sites in the country.
“I’ve rarely seen a worse one, in terms of site selection, than this,” said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida, said about the proposed Shiloh Launch Complex north of the Kennedy Space Center. “Normally, we try to be collaborative and work out the impacts, but there’s not much to focus on in a collaborative way: It’s uniformly bad for the environment.”
The Shiloh Launch Complex would be built on 200 acres of undeveloped land near a former citrus community called Shiloh. The site, about 10 miles north of the NASA launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center, would have two vertical launch pads that could accommodate up to 24 launches per year (12 on each launch pad), as well as 24 engine-test dress rehearsals. Two off-site support facilities are also planned.
The project’s promoter is Space Florida, the state’s aeronautic economic development authority created by the legislature in 2006 to promote commercial space flight and aerospace research, development and jobs in Florida. Space Florida’s current budget of $16 million pays for improvements and modifications to existing government equipment and structures and loans to private aerospace businesses.
Space Florida officials say many of the criticisms posed by environmental groups will be addressed by the Federal Aviation Administration in its environmental assessment of the project. However, Space Florida has already addressed some of those concerns.
Among the biggest concerns for environmentalists: Destruction of wetlands. However, Space Florida estimates that less than half of the wetlands in the project footprint will be affected. The land that will be disturbed is mostly fallow orange groves, according to the group.
Space Florida said access to recreation, such as fishing and kayaking, may be off-limits for six to 15 hours during launches, but “we anticipate there will be people still able to fish much of the lagoon, and watch from the beach during a launch.” The FAA environmental study will make the final determination.
Besides environmental concerns, critics say a commercial launch site for private companies isn’t needed since the Space Shuttle and Constellation programs were canceled, which frees up the launch sites formerly used for those programs.
“Our argument all along is there is an alternative, which is the space center,” said Tom Altif, a longtime resident of the space coast and member of Save Our Lagoon, which opposes the Shiloh project. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Space Florida officials say private businesses don’t want to launch from the NASA sites because they would then be under the purview and regulatory oversight of NASA, the Air Force and other federal agencies. Texas, which is also vying for commercial aerospace business, is offering a launch site without NASA and Air Force oversight, meaning commercial launches will be the top priority, Space Florida officials wrote in response to questions posed by The Palm Beach Post.
“That freedom from NASA and the Air Force may also soon be available in Georgia, Puerto Rico and elsewhere,” officials wrote.
Environmental regulations also pose concerns. The Shiloh site contains high-quality habitat for the Florida scrub jay, a threatened species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned that the Shiloh project could limit the service’s ability to conduct controlled burns, which help manage the scrub jay ecosystem. Space Florida officials say the Shiloh Project “should not be an obstacle” to the practice.
Environmental consultants hired by Space Florida also found 18 active gopher tortoise burrows on the Shiloh site. The burrows of the gopher tortoise, a threatened species, provide refuge for the Eastern indigo snake, another threatened species.
There also are three archaeological sites, including the Elliot Plantation, a large British Colonial era plantation. Archaeologists have discovered remains of roads, canals, slave villages, dwellings and a sugar factory. The National Park Service has recommended that the Elliot Plantation is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and for consideration as a National Historic Landmark.
Cynthia K. Dohner, the regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, weighed in on the project in a 30-page letter she sent to the Federal Aviation Administration on Jan 3. Dohner said the project would likely affect 16 threatened and endangered species and other at-risk species.
Of special concern is the scrub jay, a threatened species which has seen populations decrease 26 percent between 1993 and 2011. Thirty-one scrub jay families have made their homes on land adjacent to or within the footprint of the Shiloh Project, Dohner wrote. Lighting from the project could also affect nesting of endangered sea turtles and manatees could suffer if polluted runoff damages sea grasses, a major food source.
“The Service urges the FAA to seriously consider alternatives to the Project Site,” Dohner wrote.
The Shiloh site also sits beneath the airspace arrival route into Orlando International Airport. In their environmental site review, consultants said that “airspace would have to be shut down during launches. Space Florida officials admit air traffic “is an issue that will need to be addressed.” However, “space launch and commercial aviation have both done very well over the last six decades,” officials wrote.
“There is no reason to assume that cannot continue to be managed for the benefit of both,” Space Florida officials wrote.
The FAA recently invited public comment on the environmental impact of the proposed commercial space launch site. It will conduct two public hearings to solicit comment: Feb. 11 at the New Smyrna Beach High School and Feb. 12 at the Eastern Florida State College, Titusville campus. Both hearings will be from 5-8 p.m.