Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Plan for new launchpad worries environmentalists


New plans to convert an abandoned citrus town into a Space Coast rocket hub has triggered another round of fighting between environmentalists and the aerospace industry — and this time the rocketeers could have an edge. At issue is the ghost town of Shiloh, which straddles the border between Volusia County and Brevard and sits at the northern boundary of Kennedy Space Center.

State officials envision a new launchpad for commercial-rocket companies and they've asked NASA to give about 150 acres of undeveloped KSC land around Shiloh to Space Florida, a public-private agency that wants to create the proposed facility.

Though NASA has yet to respond, the request has drawn the notice of Florida environmentalists, who successfully opposed a similar effort four years ago on the grounds that it would scar Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 140,000-acre sanctuary that overlays KSC.

"Some of these bad ideas have a way of being reborn," said Charles Lee of Audubon Florida.

Lee said a Shiloh site could harm rare wildlife — including the scrub-jay, one of at least 15 threatened or endangered species at the refuge — and also curtail fishing and other outdoor recreation at neighboring Canaveral National Seashore.

"The problems would be either magnified or lessened depending upon exactly where the [launch] site is," Lee said. "But suffice it to say it is in an area where the losses to the national wildlife refuge could be severe."

Details on its exact location are vague. Space Florida, which acts as a state booster to the aerospace industry, recently commissioned a $2.3 million study of the Shiloh area to determine the best place to build a launchpad and its impact on the environment.

Frank DiBello, head of Space Florida, said the impact study should by done by next summer.

"Until we do the environmental and engineering studies, we won't be able to draw the lines for you," he said.

But DiBello added that he hoped that Space Florida could avoid another brawl with bird-watchers and other naturalists, who in 2008 helped shelve a similar proposal to build a spaceport with two launchpads at a cost of at least $500 million.

Space Florida didn't provide cost estimates for the current proposal, nor how payments would be split between the agency and interested rocket companies.

DiBello said what was important at this point was bringing together all the interested parties, including environmentalists.

"I studied carefully what happened four years ago," he said.

But he warned that environmental concerns would be just one factor.

"We are not going to let hysteria drive this process," DiBello said.

This time around, the rocketeers are in a better bargaining position. When the idea was pitched in 2008, the U.S. economy was in better shape, the space shuttle was still flying and details about which company or companies actually would use the site were hazy.

That all has changed. National economic problems are compounded on the Space Coast, which is reeling from the shuttle's retirement. And the latest proposal is aimed at a specific customer — SpaceX of California — although Florida officials won't admit it publicly.

The company already has a pad at Cape Canaveral for NASA flights to the International Space Station, but founder Elon Musk wants another for nongovernment customers.

An independent site near Shiloh not only would allow more flights but also would mean SpaceX would be able to launch on its schedule, rather than having to coordinate with NASA and the Air Force, which also has a nearby launch range.

"What we are trying to do is put an offer on the table that a good businessman would see the logic in," DiBello said.

Even if Space Florida is successful, it's no guarantee SpaceX will commit to Florida. The company is negotiating with other states, notably Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry has spearheaded the effort, as well as Puerto Rico.

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