The rocket man hits turbulence

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire Studios

American space engineer Steve Matier is suddenly facing stiff resistance against his plan to build Canada’s first commercial rocket pad in a coastal hamlet of Nova Scotia better known for its annual Stan Rogers Folk Festival.

Bolstered with what seemed like broad community support six months ago, the provincial government green lit his project to launch as many as eight Ukrainian-built, satellite-carrying rockets a year from Canso by 2021. Now, popular opposition to Matier (who hails from New Mexico) and his Halifax-based Maritime Launch Services is swelling like an angry sea.

Critics as disparate as a community worker, a college professor, a musician, and about 400 others (who’ve signed a petition under the rubric “Action Against Canso Spaceport”) say the initiative is reckless and dangerous. Moreover, they insist, its formal approval process in June was woefully inadequate.

At the heart of the controversy is the environmental assessment, which opponents insist was full of holes and unanswered questions regarding the use of UDMH, a highly toxic rocket fuel.

Says Karen McKendry, a wilderness outreach coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre who’s been monitoring the issue closely: “Some comments, which accompany the official decision, from provincial and federal government staff were telling.”

For example, engineering specialist Brent Baxter with the Nova Scotia Department of the Environment wrote, “There are significant gaps in the information on how most dangerous goods will be stored on the proposed site. . .Information on transferring [such] goods to and from the launch vehicles is also limited.”

In some cases, federal reviewers seemed almost flummoxed. “Since this is the first commercial spaceport to undergo an environmental review in Canada, we note that [we have] no past experience evaluating spaceport projects,” wrote Health Canada health and environment specialist Lance Richardson-Prager.

McKendry says one problem is that the law does not automatically trigger a more rigorous federal assessment for this type of project, as it might have in the past: “Under the old language of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, a spaceport would have been considered an airport, and a federal environmental assessment of the project would have ensued. And it would have been far more stringent than the current provincial process in Nova Scotia.”

To critics, then, the risks of the scheme far outweigh the potential economic benefits, such as jobs and tourism revenues, its promoters espouse.

“Consider the possible negative effects on air, land, and water,” Canso resident and youth programs coordinator Marie Lumsden says. “Right now, there is a lack of clear modelling for all worse case scenarios [regarding] the storage of extremely toxic chemicals on site.”

That’s a big problem, says Michael Byers, a professor of international law and politics at the University of British Columbia. He studies UDMH (Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine), the use of which, he says, is declining around the world.

“This stuff was originally chosen for ICBMs during the Cold War because you could store it for a long time and never have to touch it,” he explains. “It’s not considered optimal for use in satellite launches because it’s so dangerous. The Russians call it ‘devil’s breath’.”

Matier says that while he welcomes healthy criticism, he’s less sanguine with some of the claims he’s hearing these days, especially those concerning the proposed use and storage of UDMH at his Canso facility. “The frustration comes when the questions now being asked are the same questions we’ve answered four or five or six times already,” bristles the former NASA aerospace engineer and U.S. commercial space industry consultant.

In a commentary published in the Guysborough Journal this summer, Matier addressed the fuel question: “The second [stage], when the rocket is high in the atmosphere, will use hypergolic fuel and oxidizer [UDMH]. Hypergolic fuels are used at spaceport facilities in the United States, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, among other countries. Like almost any chemical, it can be dangerous. As such, it is stored, transported, and used with the utmost caution, subject to all relevant government regulations. . . We’ve seen the community support the project through the 753 signatures attached to a petition that was tabled at the legislature in April.”

In a recent interview with Halifax Magazine, he added, “We’ve had a liaison committee up and running in Canso for two years, with a dozen people who are very well plugged in.”

One is Ray White, a former five-term mayor of the community. He says that as long as the proper environmental safeguards are in place (and he’s confident they are), the spaceport could be a vital economic stimulus to an area once known for its vibrant fishery. “There are a lot of small business that are hoping this will make them more viable,” he says. “We have to find something other than the Stan Rogers Folk Festival to expand the community.”

Garnet Rogers, the late Stan’s Hamilton, Ontario-based younger brother and an internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter who owns a home in Canso, isn’t convinced. “If I thought it [the spaceport] would be good for the community, I’d be okay with it,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s good for the community. My entire interest in, and love of, Nova Scotia lies within this ten-mile stretch of shore.”

For him, and an increasing number of others, that precious sliver of coastline does not include Steve Matier’s downeast version of Cape Canaveral.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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