PUNA, Hawaii Island — There’s yet another proposal to launch rockets from the shores of the Big Island, this time from Puna.

Alaska Aerospace, a company started by the state of Alaska to develop a launch facility on Kodiak Island, wants to expand its operations to include a smaller spaceport for equatorial launches.

In late December, the company went public with those plans, announcing it was in negotiations with the W.H. Shipman Co. to locate that facility on Shipman land in Puna, and several local news outlets reported that the Hawaii Legislature had authorized $250,000 for an environmental assessment of the project. (Gov. David Ige actually released only $225,000 of that amount.)

The proposed spaceport has already drawn criticism from residents who question the advisability of locating such a facility in a populous, high-lava-risk district. Proponents tout it as a way to bring high-tech jobs to the Big Island and slow the “brain drain” of island students to the mainland.

Various companies and state officials have been attempting in vain to start missile launch facilities on the Big Island since 1960, when a proposal for a spaceport near the summit of Mauna Kea went nowhere. Launch sites have been proposed at locations ranging from the remote area between Upolu point and Waipio Valley, at the north end of the island, to an abandoned Air Force tracking facility near South Point.

A Venture class Rocket Labs Electron lifts off from a launch site in New Zealand. Alaska Aerospace would like to launch small rockets such as this from a spaceport in East Hawaii. Courtesy of Alaska Aerospace

Heavy opposition from Kau residents has discouraged repeated spaceport proposals in their district. Another plan to designate Kona Airport as a launch site for “space tourism” flights is still under study.

Alaska Aerospace President Mark Lester hopes that his company’s proposal will have more luck because of its smaller scale.

Lester said the proposed Puna launch platform would be used only for commercial satellite launches by a new class of smaller rockets, dubbed the “Venture” class by NASA. Unlike larger rockets that require vertical assembly buildings and huge gantries, the 20- to 60-foot Venture-class rockets can be assembled lying on their sides, wheeled out to launch pads on trailers and then raised by the trailers into firing position.

Examples of Venture-class rockets include Rocket Lab USA’s liquid-fueled Electron; Vector Launch’s Vector-R; and Sandia National Laboratories’ solid-fueled Super Strypi.

A number of questions need to be resolved regarding the Alaska Aerospace project before its backers would move forward with it.

One question is how safe the rockets would be. Venture class rockets are a new technology. The Electron, for example, made its first commercial flight in November. The Vector-R is expected to make its first flight — from Alaska Aerospace’s Kodiak facility— this year.

State Rep. Mark Nakashima, who represents Hilo and Hamakua, added the budget item for the environmental assessment. He said it actually grew out of a failed 2015 flight of a Super Strypi from the Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands on Kauai. The rocket, carrying several mini-satellites, including one designed by Hawaii college students, blew up in mid-air.

Despite the failure, Nakashima said the flight provided valuable data that led to the decision to explore East Hawaii as a satellite-launching site.

Mike Flynn, the director of the Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory, said the rocket was built by Sandia labs, but flew from a “rail launcher” that was built by the University of Hawaii at a site that UH prepared.

The Super Strypi has not flown since then. For now, Flynn said, “solid fueled rockets are well into the future.”

Alaska Aerospace’s assurance that its rockets “won’t be any louder than the jets that take off from the Hilo airport” did not comfort some residents. Courtesy of Alaska Aerospace

Alaska Aerospace’s Kodiak facility has a mixed record. The majority of its missions have flown successfully, but the spaceport has also seen several failures — most recently two suborbital test launches last July and December. In 2014, the explosion of a U.S. military STARS IV missile damaged the facility so badly that it was closed for nearly two years.

Lester said that the proposed Hawaii facility would not be used for military missions, and that the Kodiak facility had never had a launch-related fatality.

The safety of the vehicles is not the only unanswered question about the Alaska Aerospace proposal. Another is the actual location of the launch site. In an article in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, Alaska Aerospace CEO Craig Campbell described the proposed site as “east or northeast of the macadamia nut farm.”

Lester told Civil Beat that the exact location would be revealed at an informational meeting on the island in early February, but that the time and place of that meeting had yet to be determined.

Flynn confirmed that the macadamia farm was Mauna Loa Macadamia Nuts, whose plantation visitor center is located about 9 miles south of downtown Hilo — near the border between South Hilo and Puna, the island’s two most populous districts. But he added, “We can’t tell whether that site is the final site or whether we’re going to move to another site.”

“Once again someone wants to look at my district as an industrial sacrifice.” — State Sen. Russell Ruderman

Chung Chang, who heads the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Office of Aerospace Development, which will be doing the environmental Assessment, referred to that location as “one of the potential sites,” and said that the EA may look at others in East Hawaii, though he ruled out Kau.

Where the fuel would be stored and what that fuel would be are also unsettled questions. Lester described a site with large berms to protect the fuel from an accident on the launch pad and with an on-site building for assembling the rockets, but he also noted that his company was “not going to store large amounts of fuel at the site,” and that it would not be practical to manufacture liquid oxygen, one of the two ingredients used in liquid-fueled rockets, on the Big Island.

The environmental assessment would have to answer, then, where the fuel would be stored and how it would reach the launch site — two questions that concern anxious residents of Keaukaha and Panaewa, two Hawaiian Home Lands neighborhoods that are already next door neighbors to petroleum and natural gas tank farms, Hilo Airport, the Port of Hilo, a drag strip and most of Hilo’s industrial districts.

Alaska Aerospace already touched a raw nerve with some of those residents when Campbell told the Tribune-Herald that the noise from the rockets “won’t be any louder than the jets that take off from the Hilo airport.”

“I can’t even believe that they said that,” said Keaukaha/Panaewa community activist Terri Napeahi. “That’s absolutely insulting. I grew up right next to the terminal, on the fence line. We’ve been fighting issues on the noise my entire life.”

Flynn also noted the uncertainties about where the rockets would be assembled.

“Most of the vehicles that were going to be launched could be assembled in the tech park or anywhere else,” he said. “Right now, it depends on the different companies and what their ideas are.”

He noted that the rockets might be put together at a new “innovation and manufacturing center” that was planned for Hilo Airport.

“We’re so early in the EA that there isn’t very much information at this point,” Chang said.

“The media kind of got ahead of us last week, which is okay,” said Lester.

Honolulu Civil Beat Civil Cafe Sen Russell Ruderman at Captiol with Sen Maile Shimabukuro, Janet Mason and Carmille Lim. 17 march 2016
State Sen. Russell Ruderman learned from the media about a spaceport proposed for his district. He strongly opposes it. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It also got ahead of Puna’s legislators, who were left scrambling for information about the project. At least one, Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents Puna and Kau, said he first heard about the proposal when the media called him — despite Nakashima’s provision of money for an environmental assessment.

“I guess Rep. Nakashima said there was no geographic attachment to the area,” Ruderman said.

He compared the Alaska Aerospace proposal to two others where district legislators hadn’t been asked first: a “geothermal industrial zone” and a proposal by another space company, Spinlaunch, to locate a giant catapult satellite launcher in Kau.

Both those projects, Ruderman noted, had been defeated.

“Once again someone wants to look at my district as an industrial sacrifice,” he said.  “This is dead, too. It’s not going to happen.”

Chang urged people to “keep an open mind.”

“We’ve got to complete the EA to make sure we’re on the right path,” he said.

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