Residents air concerns about spaceport proposal

  • Mark Lester, Alaska Aerospace Corp. president, speaks with residents at an informational meeting about a proposed spaceport Wednesday evening at the Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo. TOM CALLIS/Tribune-Herald
  • This map shows the proposed launch site, ground hazard area, and distances to residences. Courtesy of PISCES.

An informational meeting on a proposed spaceport on W.H. Shipman land wasn’t set up as a public hearing.

But opponents of the Alaska Aerospace Corp. project didn’t let that stop them from speaking out.

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The well-attended open house held Wednesday evening at the Grand Naniloa Hotel, part of the environmental assessment process, was punctuated at times by chants of “roads not rockets” and “no space pork.”

Some performed a protest song with an ukulele and circulated around different displays with a microphone and amplifier in hand, seeking to put project representatives on the spot.

Aside from colorful protests, there was no shortage of critics at the meeting, which was set up to respond to questions and take written comments for the EA.

Haawina Wise of Keaau was one of several opponents who passionately expressed their concerns with Peggy Farias, CEO of Shipman. They asked her not to allow the project to move forward.

“I’m just hurt and baffled,” Wise said afterward. “We are not going to let this happen.”

Farias has said Shipman hasn’t made a decision yet about whether to host the spaceport. She said they have to consider ideas that come along.

At one point, Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the main figures in the legal battles around the Thirty Meter Telescope, stepped in to help calm the situation as Farias appeared overwhelmed by the crowd. She urged them to follow “kapu aloha.”

“That’s our power,” Pisciotta said. “We can help them do better.”

Concerns included noise and air pollution, along with safety.

“I moved here to have quiet,” said Hope Henry of Hawaiian Paradise Park.

Rodrigo Romo, program manager for the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, a project facilitator, said 90 people signed in at the meeting. But he estimated several hundred showed up.

A draft EA could be complete in three to six months, followed by a public meeting on its findings. Comments can be emailed until March 6 to PSCH.EA.Project@kfs-llc.com.

Romo, who attended the meeting to answer questions, said he spoke with more supporters than he anticipated.

“The purpose was to provide the public with enough information, factual information, of the site so they can now make an informed decision,” he said. “I came across more people than anti, with a positive or open-minded attitude.”

Romo said there were a couple of “very unpleasant moments,” including one exchange that resulted in an electrical engineering student, who was present to talk about the project, being brought to tears.

“Her father had to jump in to intervene,” he said. “It was too emotional for her.”

Romo said some of the opponents hugged her afterward.

The spaceport would sit on a 12.5-acre site and be used to launch small satellites into low orbit. Rockets would be between 40 and 60 feet tall. Two launch pads would be built, one 20 feet by 20 feet, the other 20 feet by 60 feet in size. The proposed location is between the Mauna Loa macadamia nut farm and the ocean, 4.5 miles from Keaau, 3.3 miles from the Panaewa agriculture lots, and 1.7 miles from Haena beach, also known as Shipman beach.

The project requires approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The state of Alaska formed the Alaska Aerospace Corp. in 1991 as a public corporation to promote the state’s aerospace industry. It operates one launch site on Kodiak Island in Alaska.

Mark Lester, Alaska Aerospace president, said the interest in East Hawaii is to provide equatorial launches for companies that build small satellites. As for how a Hawaii site fits in with its charter, he said their commercial customers have needs for both locations.

The organization has estimated that 24 launches a year would occur.

Lester said that’s based on what would make the project economical. A launch limit would be set with the help of the EA.

He said the site can’t expand without going through another public review process.

Small satellite manufacturers are looking to small rockets as a more affordable alternative to hitching rides on larger delivery vehicles.

As for jobs, only about eight people would run the launch site.

Supporters say it could lead to other aerospace jobs related to satellite manufacturing or repair.

“Eight is not a huge number,” Lester acknowledged. “But the spaceport is like an airport.

“… It’s about the airplanes that come in; it’s about other companies that come in and create jobs. It’s about being a kernel, a seed, for an aerospace industry here.”

Asked if there are any commitments to locate that kind of work here, he said, “This industry is just building up, but we are having those conversations.”

The University of Hawaii at Manoa already trains students in satellite manufacturing through its Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory.

Luke Flynn, director of the lab, said the hope is to provide more jobs for them in the state. Worker training programs also could be offered through Hawaii Community College, he said.

A ground hazard area would extend about 1.2 miles away during launches.

That area would be cleared of people, and would contain debris if there’s a launch failure, Lester said.

Boating may be restricted in a larger area around launches.

One incident was reported at Kodiak in 2016 when the test of a new Army weapon — a hypersonic glider — failed four seconds into flight, causing flight controllers to blow it up, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Debris damaged buildings at the facility but caused no injuries.

The East Hawaii site would only be used for commercial purposes, according to Alaska Aerospace.

“Things can happen, and that’s why we calculate those things, we plan for them, and we understand those things,” Lester said. “That’s why a location works here. It makes sense because we are far enough away.”

Not everyone was feeling comfortable with the distance.

“This is pretty much the wrong place to do it, especially down there,” said HPP resident Duane Fujiyama.

Josh Catton, another HPP resident, said he came to the meeting out of curiosity.

“I know there can be, maybe some positives here, but there’s always something that can go wrong with these projects,” he said. “You never know. You got to look at what the impacts are.”

Rockets would be launched over the ocean.

Lester said the first stage of the rockets would be released after they’ve spent their fuel.

He said they would drop into the ocean about 450 to 500 miles away.

For a 60-foot rocket, the first stage would be about 40 feet long, he said.

As for how he thought the meeting went, Lester said, “It was eventful, but it was a good meeting.”

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The state Legislature approved $250,000 for the EA, of which, $225,000 was released.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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