Letter from the Editor: Prepare to Launch

R.J. King
R.J. King

Several states have benefited mightily from America’s space program, including Florida, Texas, California, and even Ohio, home of the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in Brook Park, southwest of Cleveland.

Now Michigan is seeking to enter the race to design, build, and launch rockets. While no one is advocating for propelling astronauts to the backside of the moon or the Holden Crater on Mars, Michigan has an opportunity to start up a new industry for delivering satellites into low orbit.

As the world strives to improve mobility, more powerful, yet smaller, satellites are  required for the advanced communications systems needed to link autonomous vehicles, aerial taxis, and robots. Our managing editor, Tim Keenan, reported earlier this year (“Rockets’ Red Glare,” March/April 2019) that more than 7,000 small satellites are planned to be launched in the next decade by NASA and a host of aerospace companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX.

Due to a variety of reasons, including northern Michigan’s close proximity for launching rockets into a polar orbit — where satellites pass over the North Pole and the South Pole — the state is being seriously considered for what experts predict will be a $28-billion industry by 2028.

Because Michigan has so much water and underutilized or closed military bases, the single-stage, 55-foot-long, 50-inch-diameter rockets can be launched with minimal impact on large, populated areas. The military bases also are located in close proximity to freeways and offer long runways, which will be an important factor as some rockets will be launched from large aircraft.

The space race isn’t new to Michigan. The Big Three automakers each had aerospace divisions in the early 1960s that contributed to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. And for years, Michigan has been ranked among the top three states for the production of aircraft and aerospace parts and components.

In an effort led by the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA), a trade group in Sterling Heights, most of the funding for the so-called Michigan Launch Initiative would come from the private sector. In addition, the effort recently was awarded $2 million in state funds to research the best location for a $70-million space port.

Greener Earth Advisory Services, an investment firm in Florida that has an office in Troy, says its will fund most of the project. For practical reasons, the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township would be a potential site for launching rockets from airplanes. The base is secure, and its location near the Macomb County Defense Corridor is ideal.

Multiple defense contractors already have operations in the county, including BAE Systems, General Dynamics, Navistar, and Oshkosh, and there’s also General Motors Co.’s Warren Technical Center. MAMA envisions setting up a space command center in the county, much like Mission Control in Houston.

Given metro Detroit offers one of the world’s most advanced manufacturing centers, nearly everything for the rocket program can be built here. We also have a logistics system second to none.

Add up all of the positive factors and it’s easy to see why the 2019 Space Symposium set for Sept. 9-10 in Traverse City is drawing key industry players like James F. Bridenstine, administrator of NASA. If Michigan’s private and public sectors can speak with one voice to build out a brand-new industry here, the sky won’t be our limit.

— R.J. King, rjking@dbusiness.com