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Commercial Spaceport Proposed On Wildlife Refuge Raises Questions

Since NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, Florida’s space coast has been searching for a way to prop up its slumping economy.  Private space companies may offer a solution, but some proposals to attract them are raising questions.

Thousands of Floridians lost their jobs after the space shuttle program was shuttered.  And now private companies including Space X are considering moving to the area.  That might seem like a perfect fit, but according to Florida Audubon Society spokesman Charles Lee, the problem comes from the push to build new facilities rather than use existing ones.

“It makes sense to us that you would have a much more cost effective situation if rather than having to develop the site from scratch you could use a launch pad that was already there, and NASA is willing to offer those for private use,” Lee said.

Space Florida is an aerospace development organization spearheading the program to bring commercial space companies to Florida.  They’re proposing a 150-acre launch site near the Brevard County village of Shiloh to serve these companies.  Space Florida spokeswoman Tina Lange said a separate launch site would allow companies to operate more freely.

“What we are looking for is an independent launch site outside of the Kennedy Space Center and air force jurisdiction, so that commercial launch providers can conduct their launches without having to necessarily compete with civil and military priorities,” Lange said.

According to Lange, Shiloh offers the opportunity for collaboration between the Kennedy Space Center and private companies.  Officials are concerned sharing existing facilities might push companies to other states.  They say private companies could face launch interruptions and stringent security requirements once NASA starts making regular launches again. 

There’s a larger problem, though, too.  The 150 acres they’d like to use are part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  Lee said the plan will threaten native species.

“Species like the scrub jay require controlled burning, and you can’t exactly have a controlled burning operation adjacent to an area full of volatile rocket fuels,” Lee said.

What's more, Lee said constructing a new facility avoids the problem rather than solving it.

“I mean if there are security requirements that don’t make sense from a public policy or a national security stand-point then the solution to that is to modify the bureaucracy not to carve up the national wild life refuge,” Lee said.

Lee also questions the public’s ability to access the refuge and nearby beaches if launches are happening regularly.

Over the next year, the Federal Aviation Administration will conduct an environmental impact review.  Lange said the process will include multiple public workshops, where the community will get a voice.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.