Alaska Residents Urge Caution to Hawaiʻi Officials Considering Spaceport

Feb 13, 2019

A rocket launch at Alaska Aerospace's Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska on Kodiak Island.
Credit Courtesy of Alaska Aerospace

An Alaska-based company wants to build a spaceport in East Hawaii Island. As it turns out, Puna is one of the best locations in the United States from which to launch rockets. But local residents are not so enthusiastic about the idea. Residents and officials in the company's hometown reported a complex relationship with Alaska Aerospace.

The Alaska Aerospace Corporation was created by the Alaska State Legislature as a public corporation in 1991 to help grow the 49th State’s aerospace industry. The company has now been launching rockets into space for 20 years. It currently operates the Pacific Spaceport Complex - Alaska on Kodiak Island, from which 20 orbital missions have launched since 1998.

That site is ideal for launching satellites into a polar orbit, a North-South rotation. That type of orbit is ideal for imagery satellites because it can cover almost all of the Earth’s surface. But for communication satellites an equatorial, East to West orbit is preferable.

The proposed site for the spaceport is several miles east of Keaau. The land is owned by the W.H. Shipman company.
Credit Alaska Aerospace

One of the most important factors to consider when putting anything into orbit is where the rocket vehicle is launched. The Earth actually rotates faster at the equator than it does at the poles, which is why one day is 24 hours long anywhere on Earth. So the closer to the equator a rocket launches, the less fuel needed to reach orbit.

That advantage can only be gained when a rocket launches with the rotation of the Earth, which spins from West to East, or left to right if you’re looking at a map. For that reason, any equatorial launch site needs a huge amount of empty space to the East.

A quick scan of the map will show you that not many places in the United States are close to the equator with a wide expanse of unpopulated area to the east. One of the best is already taken: NASA’s launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Another is East Hawaii Island.

But residents of Puna have not been amenable to such a facility in the past. Two previous spaceport proposals were withdrawn, at least in part due to community opposition. Alaska Aerospace CEO Craig Campbell told HPR that the company is committed to hearing residents’ concerns and doing an environmental assessment of the proposal’s impacts.

That did little to assuage East Hawaii’s State Senator Russell Ruderman. He said simply “We don’t want it.” Ruderman told HPR that 20 to 30 constituents had contacted him about the proposed launch site, all of them opposed.

Puna’s Senator was not swayed by the prospect of economic development. His opinion is that high-skill, high paying jobs will be imported, with local residents instead getting low-skill support jobs.

The Borough of Kodiak is the largest settlement of Kodiak Island. It's economy is dominated by commercial fishing and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

That rang true to Kodiak resident Mike Sirofchuck. He’s been opposing Alaska Aerospace’s presence on Kodiak Island since the mid 1990’s. In a phone interview with HPR, Sirochuck said that only a small number of support jobs like maintenance and security were added in Kodiak. Technical specialists were largely brought in for a launch.

Although launches from Kodiak have generally only occurred once per year, they can have a significant impact on the local economy, which is dominated by commercial fishing. Sea lanes around the flight path of a rocket are closed to vessel traffic around a launch. Julie Kavanaugh, an elected member of the Kodiak Borough Assembly, said that can create costly delays for fisherman, whose catch is valued by its freshness.

Kavanaugh also raised concerns about Alaska Aerospace’s environmental impact. The company was not required to complete a stringent Environmental Impact Statement, but was instead allowed to proceed with a less involved Environmental Assessment. Under Alaska state law, the company also appears to be exempt from local regulators.

Both Kodiak residents recommended that Hawaii officials ensure they have the ability to regulate the local activities of Alaska Aerospace in East Hawaii. They suggested environmental impacts and closures of air, land, and the ocean during launches as specific areas of concern.

Given the opposition to past projects, a timeline for completion of the Alaska Aerospace proposal is uncertain. CEO Craig Campbell stated that if all went smoothly the facility could not just be completed, but be operational within 24 months.