NASA rockets once flew from launch pad hidden in Michigan wilderness
COPPER HARBOR — At the end of a secluded trail on the tip of Michigan’s northernmost peninsula, there is a hidden remnant of the state’s forgotten ties to the Space Age.
No highway will take you there. Many of the roads won’t be paved. But if you’re looking for an adventure tucked within the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you’ll come across a place where rockets once flew.
Known today as the Keweenaw Rocket Range, the isolated launch pad once served as home base for a joint research project between the University of Michigan and NASA.
“With lightning speed, the second of the University of Michigan rocket firings is shown within a fraction of a second timing,” an article published by the Daily Mining Gazette On Dec. 8, 1965 reads. “…Lake Superior was calm with only a gentle lapping of the waves against the shoreline of rocks, pebbles and stray driftwood.”
Mostly forgotten today, “sounding” rockets of many sizes were launched from the site with the goal of collecting meteorological data beginning in 1964, five years before U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
It was one of several locations scattered throughout the United States known as the Meteorological Rocket Network. The site was used for data-gathering purposes until 1971.
The Keweenaw’s small, abandoned site won’t rival the Kennedy Space Center or the International Space Station in grandeur or historic importance, but it does serve as a vital reminder of a portion of Michigan’s role in the early days of NASA’s space program.
“The fantastic thing about the sounding rockets is that they could reach the edge of space with a single mission,” rocketry author Peter Alway said in an article logged in Michigan Tech University archives.
“On the other hand, the Apollo manned space mission was so huge and involved millions of people, most of whom didn’t know much about the operation beyond their narrow technical part. With the research rocket use that was done in the U.P., it was understandable.”
According to an initial report compiled by Harold Allen, the project’s supervisor, the idea to build a rocket range on the south shore of Lake Superior was suggested as early as 1962.
It was a desirable location due to the region’s low population density and positioning near the center of the North American land mass – a fact important for measurements and tests requiring a mid-latitude site away from marine influences.
The Keweenaw Peninsula was also ideal because small and medium-sized rockets could be launched year-round. Researchers initially were concerned that ship traffic on Lake Superior and the lack of power and telephones there could be potential obstacles, but in the end the positives of the site outweighed those wrinkles.
The rocky outcrop offers majestic views of Lake Superior and Manitou Island located just miles offshore.
The launch facility was funded by a $52,850 grant provided by what was then known as the Michigan Department of Economic Expansion. Goodman Lumber Division of Calumet and Hecla. Inc. donated 203 acres of land to U of M for the project.
Site prep, access roads and equipment transportation was arranged by the Keweenaw County Highway Commission.
A variety of rockets, including smaller ones known as Mighty Mouse rockets, Arcas and Nike Apache rockets were provided by a variety of sources, including the United States Weather Bureau. U.S. Navy and NASA. A rocket launcher was loaned by the White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico.
A van-mounted radiosonde, power generator and 75-foot telescoping tower was also loaned by the U.S. Army. Staff onsite include personnel from U of M, Michigan Tech and White Sands under the direction of Allen.
A waiver of Part 45 of Federal Air Regulations authorized launches on three specified days each week during daylight hours in clear weather.
About 50 Mighty Mouse rockets were launched off a floating buoy between the on-land rocket site and Manitou Island in the early days of the project. It grew from there.
According to historian Glen Swanson, author of a detailed article titled “Spaceport Michigan: When Rockets Flew from the Great Lakes State,” Michigan’s first steps toward the Space Age occurred at 7:07 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1964 when an Arcas rocket weighing 76 pounds was launched toward the sky over Lake Superior.
More Arcas rockets, each about 6 feet in size, followed. They were launched in 10-day intervals in August and September 1964. Each measured temperature, air pressure, density and wind velocity until impact. And not always without incident.