Alaska Aerospace Corporation has launched their proposal to operate a mini spaceport on Hawaii’s Big Island to the community. Known as the “Pacific Spaceport Complex Hawai’i” or “PSCH” for short, the compact complex would launch small commercial rockets, taking advantage of Hawaii’s distance from the equator to propel small satellites into orbit. To kick off the proposal process, stakeholders involved with PSCH held an informational open house to answer questions and collect feedback from the community on their plans. While the community feedback has been a mix of both positive and negative, some vocal opponents interrupted the open house to make their dissatisfaction known.
With the community meeting complete, Honolulu-based KFS Inc. will begin the process of conducting a thorough Environmental Assessment (EA) for the project. The EA would evaluate the potential direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental effects that may result from constructing and operating an equatorial spaceport for vertical launch vehicles at the site.
KFS is majority owned by Na ‘Oiwi Kane, a not-for-profit Native Hawaiian Organization (NHO) with resources based in Huntsville, Alabama. A source from KFS not authorized to speak on their behalf told us they expect to have a Draft EA available for review by the public and PSCH stakeholders in about 6 months. At that point, another community meeting will be held in Hawaii to share and discuss those findings. The State of Hawaii is funding $225,000 of the EA, with additional support being sourced by Alaska Aerospace Corporation.
Alaska Aerospace CEO Craig Campbell tells us that they’d like to ideally construct the spaceport next year and perhaps launch the first rockets before the end of 2020. However, Campbell’s optimistic timeline needs to pass many hurdles before his vision comes to fruition.
The first challenge is the land that the proposed spaceport will sit on and its owner, W.H. Shipman Limited. Established in 1882, family-owned W.H. Shipman Limited owns 17,000 acres in the Puna District on Hawaii’s Big Island, making it the fourth largest land owner on the island.
“I haven’t actually made a decision one way or another as to how I feel about this site, ” W.H. Shipman Limited President Margaret “Peggy” Farias told us. Alaska Aerospace has determined that a location on the coast, roughly 1.7 miles north of Haena Beach, on Shipman property would be the best location for their mini spaceport. “There are definitely concerns. Haena is someplace that’s very important for me, our family, and our company to protect. And it’s something that’s very important to the community as well for a number of reasons. It’s a very culturally significant site. There’s a lot of endangered species, and a lot of environmental reasons why we need to protect that site.” Farias said issues raised by the EA could kill the project. “I don’t know enough about the impacts yet to make a decision. But certainly if there’s anything that comes out in the studies that suggest that there’s any threat to Haena or to the surrounding communities, that would be a reason for us to say ‘no’ to the project.”
While Farias said the decision of whether to allow Alaska Aerospace to build on their property is at the discretion of the W.H. Shipman Board, of which she’s a member, she has a personal stake in the decision: the launchpad will literally be in her backyard. “My husband and I with our two children live in Hawaiian Paradise Park,” Farias told us, “and we are scheduled soon to move down to Haena. So we will be living in the closest permanent residence to the proposal.”
Farias started her presidency at W.H. Shipman on January 1, succeeding her cousin Bill Walter who served at the helm of the company for 13 years. Prior to becoming President, Farias worked with the organization as Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer. Before working on the family business, though, the Hawaiian Tribune-Herald wrote that Farias earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry and Biology from Harvard University and a Master’s Degree in Conservation Biology from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Such a background could provide additional perspective in reviewing the EA for her company.
“A lot of the people in there were very passionate about telling me ‘no, you shouldn’t even be doing this’,” Farias said, describing anti-spaceport protesters that shouted at her at the open house. But she described why as a leader she needs to hear-out the opportunity.
“So my position is that as a leader of our family, as a leader of the business community and as just a member of the community, it’s our responsibility to look at opportunities that come along that may benefit future generations. And this project has the potential, you know, there’s not a guarantee, but there’s that potential to provide another industry that would allow young people that have studied electrical engineering and studied rocketry and things like that and can’t be employed here…it would give them the potential to come home, it would give other students their potential to study those things here and to stay here. Economic benefits eventually affect all of us because if the community is doing better than we’re all doing better, but that has to be weighed. So in a position of responsibility, you have to weigh those potential benefits against the need to protect our resources because what good are these, these potential benefits to the next generation if the important resources aren’t there for the next generation as well.”
Others in the community are also weighing the pro’s and con’s and don’t necessarily trust that the stakeholders have their best interests in mind. One such person is Terri Napeahi. While running for an unsuccessful bid for local office in 2018, Napeahi has been successful in leading a voice in the public and in social media protesting plans for the spaceport. Napeahi said this proposal is just another burden on a growing list of burdens and hardships her community is facing.
“Here on the Big Island, you know we had to endure so many different proposals and development proposals that were detrimental to our family’s lives,” Napeahi told us. “We’re now living the compounded impact of several toxic release inventory companies, especially here in Hilo where the majority of the industry is in place, where we have a harbor and we have the airport.” Napeahi took time explaining to us the plight of Hawaiians living on the island and how they’ve been treated as an afterthought in political decisions and development plans over the decades. In describing how Hawaiian Homeland residents have been treated over the years, she described one situation where family members were forced off the land they were living on to make way for Hilo International Airport. “They had no say; it was an executive order done by the governor and their families had to move and make way for a runway. I live right smack in front of touch and go and so we’ve had to endure the noise. And it hasn’t been mitigated since it was put there in the early sixties. My family has to endure a lot of health impacts, like fumes and the sound, and it’s unfortunately never been mitigated.” Exasperated, Napeahi added, “Now we’re having another proposal for a rocket launch that’s only three miles away from our Hawaiian homes.”
Napeahi says she doesn’t have much trust in leaders to make the right decision, including those involved with the proposed spaceport. “It’s going to be near water, the ocean, and it’s going to be an infringement of our traditional customary rights. Closures will not allow anybody to be in that area. It’s also being developed on the conservation ag land and they’re going to have to change that to commercial,” Napeahi said. “And all of these decisions were made by our legislators …who decided to use a map, make a circle, and then think about it’s best virtue : the economy. I’d heard that so many times.” While hearing about what’s right for the economy, Napeahi said she hasn’t heard much about the environment. “Right now there’s seven toxic facilities near our Hawaiian homes that have been not compliant to EPA standards for decades,” Napeahi added.
We asked Napeahi point blank: “Is it safe to say you’re not just against the spaceport, you’re against any industry in this area?” She answered with a simple “yes.”
Others expressed anger in the proposed spaceport at the community open house. There were several attendees collecting signatures for a petition at the doorway to the event. We asked if we could interview them and they declined; we asked if they could explain the purpose of the petition and they declined; we asked where the petitions would go, and their answer was an ambiguous “many places.” Others displayed anti-spaceport signs while others sang a protest song. One even brought an amplified microphone to shout-out their disapproval of the proposal, earning the ire of other people there as sparks flew.
In a Facebook post about the meeting, BT Gilson wrote, “We were so frustrated yesterday at this information gathering. We came with open minds to ask real questions and read the info provided. Although we can understand much of both sides of the issue feel we wanted to make up our own minds by learning. What we heard and saw instead was a small group of people who were opposed to the project making it nearly impossible for those who came to read or ask questions to do so due to the noise they choose to make in the room. It was already a crowded room and the talking in the room was fairly loud but when the activist came in with their microphone and started singing and talking over what was supposed to be a calm informational event they showed themselves to be uncaring of their neighbors who were there to ask questions and learn. If they wanted to make a point or educate others with information there are far better ways to do so than be obstructionist. We found them to be inconsiderate and obnoxious in their approach. We would have listened to them more if they had not bulldozed their way into the event and destroyed our ability to learn what we came to learn at the meeting and ask the questions we we wanted to ask. We don’t respond well to temper tantrums!”
Amber Imai-Hong told us she expected strong reactions at the community open house. “As expected, I heard concern and support. But it was quite emotional and contentious at times, ” Imai-Hong said. “This is a very abused community, where trust has been misplaced multiple times,” Imai-Hong said. She told us she saw “pure unadulterated rage” come through some at the open house, but also said she saw plenty of “aloha” too.
In the end though, she’s eager to see a spaceport built in Hawaii. “I’m very excited about the opportunity the spaceport could provide for myself, my peers, and future generations.” Imai-Hong told us she was born in Hilo and raised in Kea’au, miles away from the proposed spaceport. She attended Kea’au Elementary and Middle School and transferred to Waiakea High School. She eventually graduated from the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering with a specification in Electrophysics.
While working on her undergraduate degree, Imai-Hong participated in the Native Hawaiian Science and Engineering Mentorship Program, a program designed to attract and groom Native Hawaiians into science careers. By having an aerospace industry, even in a small form on Hawaii, Imai-Hong believes other young people with an interest in STEM could find local jobs without having to head to the Mainland for work.
That optimism was shared by the Program Director of the Hilo, Hawaii-based Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES), Rodrigo Romo. While PISCES doesn’t have a stake in the Alaska Aerospace proposal, they have been facilitating dialog between spaceport stakeholders, community leaders, and government officials. Romo believes stimulating an aerospace industry could have long-term benefits to Hawaii and its residents. “I do believe that it is possible to keep an adequate balance between the environment and the community while providing an economic development opportunity for Hawaii’s younger generations,” Romo said.
Farias says that W.H. Shipman hasn’t had any talks about money with Alaska Aerospace Corporation and that no negotiation or terms would be determined until after the EA is complete. Farias was also quick to point out that more than money is at stake here. “The primary drivers of this project is not how much they would be paying us in rent. It’s whether they can provide opportunities for Hilo and Puna for the next generations,” Farias said.
While other companies would likely establish a presence around the spaceport to support missions launching there, Farias said they won’t expand commercial use immediately around the spaceport. “One of the advantages of the site that they’re looking at is how far it is away from others,” she told us. “So to then turn around and go, okay, we’re going to put a rocket manufacturing site right next to it would be counterintuitive. So any other development or if anybody that came to us looking for land associated with this project, we would probably refer them to the business park”, referring to Shipman Business Park, an industrial park zoned for such activity in Kea’au. Farias added, “Or depending on what their proposed use was, we might just say, that’s not going to work here.”
Farias was also appreciative of the community participating in this process ahead of the EA creation. She told us, “I want to thank the community that came out tonight. There were definitely some very vocal people who opposed it, but it actually warmed my heart a little bit to hear from the people that said, ‘thank you for trying to get this information out’, ‘thank you for for making this an informed decision.’ So I just want to thank everybody that came because everybody’s concerns are important to us; this is an important part of the process.”