This is a rendering of an undeveloped, three-mile stretch of land along Lake Superior about 16 miles north of Marquette in the Upper Peninsula, which has been picked to host a vertical launch site for rockets. (Photo: Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association)
July 23, 2020: Eric D. Lawrence, Detroit Free Press
A rocket blasting toward the heavens over Lake Superior.
What could be more Pure Michigan than that?
The push to turn Michigan into one of a handful of states with active space launch operations has a new milestone.
An undeveloped, 3-mile stretch of land along the lake about 16 miles north of Marquette in the Upper Peninsula, has been picked to host a vertical launch site. Picture Cape Canaveral, although not on the same grand scale, according to the man spearheading the effort.
Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, told the Free Press that the site could be operational in the next five or six years if plans come to fruition. Brown’s manufacturing association has been instrumental in the push to bring a bit of the last frontier to the Great Lakes State.
In February, the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, a former Air Force base perhaps best known now because of its connection to PFAS pollution from its military days, was picked to handle what are called horizontal launches, with operations possible as early as 2023, should it be approved by the feds. Basically, it would mean large jets would ferry satellite bundles high enough to be launched into low Earth orbit. Brown said the intent for both sites is to create environmentally safe launch operations, with as many as 300 launches in Oscoda and a few dozen near Marquette each year.
The idea that Michigan could become a serious launch location for space flights might sound farfetched, but Brown said Michigan has some clear advantages and there’s a key reason that it could come to pass. The auto industry needs access to space to make its self-driving car dream a reality. The continuous communications connections needed for fully autonomous driving require satellites, and Michigan, with its northern location, means satellites could find spaces in orbit that are underserved by more southern launch sites. Plus, Michigan’s proximity to large bodies of water provides an essential safety component.
“The automotive manufacturers are trying to figure out how to get that connectivity in their cars,” Brown said, noting that the effort his group is pushing would allow the Detroit Three to benefit from a network the companies would not have to build on their own. He noted the advantage Tesla enjoys because of Elon Musk’s connection as founder of SpaceX, which has become a major player in the commercial space industry.
“I’m talking about the convergence of automotive and space, and why do it anywhere but here in Michigan?” Brown said this week.
The potential for significant employment gains, an estimated high end of 40,000 direct and spin-off jobs in Michigan is one reason the entire project has seen interest from the state, which contributed $2 million for a feasibility study. It’s also why the operation could see stimulus money in coming months, although nothing is set, Brown said.
By the end of the year, as much as $1.2 billion should be secured for the project, thanks to interest from several equity firms, Brown said. But he noted that fundraising would not formally begin until after the feasibility process has finished.
The site of a command and control center, which could be located anywhere in the state, is to be announced in November. Brown used NASA’s approach to illustrate why such a facility would not need to be located close to a launch site.
“Think of Houston being the command and control center for Cape Canaveral,” Brown said.
And the high-paying jobs that could be created in connection with the project would likely be spread out across the state.
Kurt Ruppenthal, vice president and general manager of Warren-based Weldaloy, said his business would easily add another 30 or 40 employees to the 100 on staff now should the spaceport effort come to pass. Weldaloy makes specialty forgings for rocket engines, something it has been doing for at least the last decade. It’s a prime example of a company that once focused heavily on supplying the auto industry and has since shifted its growth elsewhere, the kind of diversification that could benefit others in Michigan manufacturing.