After a year-long search, the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association has announced the location of a new vertical-launch spaceport in the state.
The Sterling Heights-based trade organization has identified a location just north of Marquette in the Upper Peninsula as the best site from which to launch rockets from launch pads. The location along the shores of Lake Superior will serve as a splash site in case of any problems during launches.
Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, south of Alpena on the state’s east coast, already has been selected as the top candidate for rockets to launch from beneath airplane wings, otherwise known as horizontal launches.
Driving demand for cost-effective launch capabilities in Michigan comes from a number of factors, including the fact that the nation’s two main launch sites, Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, are near or at capacity. More satellites also are being launched.
Between 2007 and 2018, about 1,200 small satellites were launched into orbit. Over the next decade, more than 7,000 small satellite launches are planned by the U.S. Department of Defense and aerospace companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, ISRO, ESA Vega, and Firefly Aerospace.
The government’s space defense plans, together with the world’s seemingly insatiable need for instant communications, GPS, mobility, and connectivity, are creating a new space race of sorts between states that want to get in on what some experts are projecting to be a $28-billion enterprise by 2028.
Michigan has several advantages in the space race, according to Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association. “The key here is that we’re ahead of the game in trying to put this space port into operation by 2022,” he says. “Other states will take anywhere from six to 10 years because they aren’t approaching it from a business perspective like we are, but from the perspective of trying to get the government to pay for everything.
“Northern Michigan is uniquely positioned for a polar orbit satellite launch facility,” he adds. “It has a low-density population, the most restricted airspace east of the Mississippi River, and access to the interstate highway system, and engineering and manufacturing capacity are readily accessible.”
Michigan native and Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden says: “There are many rocket launch sites in the world, each designed to launch in specific orbits. A site in northern Michigan could be an efficient place to launch into certain inclination trajectories. It would have a high latitude for high-inclination orbits, and sparsely settled terrain, and large lakes under the launch trajectories for greater safety.”
The site-selection process was conducted by spaceport consultants BRPH and Kimley-Horn. Sites were ranked based on several factors, including existing commercial and public infrastructure, geographic and terrestrial mapping, living standards, and workforce development. Operations are expected to begin by early 2025.
“Locating this spaceport in the U.P. will create the opportunity for our residents to use their skills, talents, and technological expertise to adapt to the changing needs of the commercial and defense space industries,” says Rep. Jack Bergman, who represents Michigan’s 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The two launch sites, along with a yet-to-be-identified command and control center, will create more than 2,000 jobs. These sites will be instrumental in creating a space ecosystem in the state that is projected to top 40,000 new jobs by 2025, according to MAMA.
“Michigan has a real opportunity to support a space-based ecosystem,” says Brown. “The Marquette location will be a critical component, bringing low-earth orbit vertical launch capabilities to the state to meet the domestic and global demand. By integrating sophisticated infrastructure with first-rate human talent, Michigan can be one of the leaders in the space industry.”
According to Brown, Michigan is uniquely positioned to take advantage of integrated space resources working collaboratively to serve industries like autonomous technology, automotive, communications, medical, education, and first responders.
Michigan will be able to meet the demand for commercial, government, and defense space launches that will provide complete geographic broadband coverage, including 5G for electric vehicles anywhere in the United States.
“This announcement is a true win for the people of the U.P.,” says State Sen. Ed McBroom, who represents the 38th District. “The vertical spaceport could bring quality job prospects to the region and highlight Michigan as a center for excellence and innovation.”
In June 2019, the Michigan Legislature appropriated $2 million to assess the feasibility of developing one or more low-orbit launch sites in Michigan. In February, MAMA announced the Oscoda site as the top candidate for a horizontal launch facility.
“I’m pleased the Marquette area has been chosen as a vertical space launch site and appreciate the comprehensive and thoughtful process that led to the selection,” says State Rep. Sara Cambensy, who represents the 109th District. “This will help bring a new industry to the U.P. and to our state that will provide good-paying jobs to our residents.”
Now that the site has been selected, MAMA says it will work with community, local, and state partners to solicit feedback as part of the licensing process with the FAA. A command and control center analysis currently is being conducted with an expected completion date in November.
For more information, read “Rockets’ Red Glare” in DBusiness magazine here.