Blog Post Sarah Gaines Barmeyer Dec 29, 2015

Could Space Exploration Harm National Parks?

Two proposed new spaceport sites are alarmingly close to national seashores in Florida and Georgia. If approved, rocket launches from these sites could cause serious harm to protected lands.

National parks are often affected by threats beyond their borders, but those dangers don’t usually involve outer space. Strange as it sounds, interplanetary exploration could pose new environmental and tourism problems for parks in the Southeast if the commercial space industry gets approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to build spaceports adjacent to two national seashores.

NPCA is working with local partners at Canaveral and Cumberland Island National Seashores to understand how building commercial spaceports and launching rockets over these serene places might affect wildlife, the natural environment, historic and cultural sites, and the visitor experience. The very attributes that draw visitors to national seashores and wilderness areas—secluded coastal areas surrounded by little development—are the same ones that commercial space companies seek for rocket launch sites.

In 2013, NPCA learned of a proposal by Space Florida to build the Shiloh Launch Complex on 200 acres within Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Merritt Island is estimated to have the largest number of endangered and threatened species of any national wildlife refuge in the contiguous United States and is located on Indian River Lagoon, the most biologically diverse estuary in North America. The refuge is adjacent to Canaveral National Seashore, and rocket launches would take place in airspace over Canaveral. This area, aptly named the Space Coast, is a few miles north of Kennedy Space Center, which is a much more logical and appropriate site for launching commercial rockets—an activity that already takes place there.

From what we know, the Shiloh Launch Complex would have negative impacts to recreational enjoyment, natural and historic resources, and endangered and threatened species within Canaveral National Seashore. NPCA shared these concerns with the FAA, recommending the use of Kennedy Space Center as a feasible alternative.

As the threat of a spaceport remains for Shiloh, commercial space companies are eyeing other locations, including another site on the Atlantic Coast in Camden County, Georgia, approximately five miles inland from Cumberland Island National Seashore. This development, Spaceport Camden, would likely launch rockets over the wilderness area of Cumberland Island, causing temporary evacuations, noise pollution, visual impairment for seashore visitors, safety concerns for visitors and wildlife, water pollution from rocket fuel and debris, and potential damage to historic resources. Launches also require more than one million gallons of water each—a tremendous drain on the area’s resources that would affect the overall health of the seashore.

Having grown up near the Georgia Coast, I understand the serene beauty that draws people to the area—the golden marshes as far as the eye can see, dark skies full of constellations, sea turtles and shorebirds nesting on beaches, undeveloped barrier islands, and solitude that is hard to find anywhere else along the Atlantic Coast. Cumberland Island is a place where visitors can find all this and more. Congress established the national seashore to protect its scenic, scientific, and historic significance, preserve its wilderness, and allow the public to enjoy its beauty. It’s hard to imagine securing reservations six months in advance to camp at Cumberland Island and having that unique wilderness experience on a nearly deserted island get interrupted by evacuations due to rocket launches.

The FAA is soliciting comments now to evaluate the potential impacts of the proposal to construct and operate Spaceport Camden. Learn more on NPCA’s Advocacy in Action page.

About the author

  • Sarah Gaines Barmeyer Senior Managing Director of Conservation Programs

    Sarah Barmeyer is senior managing director for NPCA’s Conservation Programs where she coordinates priority initiatives for water restoration, landscape conservation, wildlife, and clean air.