Board passes resolution asking state to invest in spaceport site investigation

By CECILIA BROWN

Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — Marquette County’s Sawyer International Airport is one of five airports in Michigan under consideration as a potential site for a spaceport that would launch low-Earth orbit satellites into space. If Sawyer is selected, the project could have an economic impact of $8 million annually and bring 500 to 1,000 jobs to the area, officials said.

Due to this, Marquette County Board of Commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting unanimously passed a resolution that asks the state of Michigan to invest $750,000 to support the Michigan Launch Initiative’s efforts to investigate Sawyer International Airport as a potential spaceport site and develop start-up objectives.

“It’s really exciting, any potential for something like this happening,” Marquette County Board of Commissioners Chairman Gerald Corkin said.

The $750,000 investment from the state is needed, as the Michigan Launch Initiative requires it to perform initial site evaluation and develop support objectives including technical case development, site location review and development planning, businesses case development and legal services, the resolution states.

“We want the state to release this money to help with this project so they can go to these identified sites, do site investigations and start rating them,” Sawyer Director of Operations Steve Schenden said. “Then they’re going to put out a request for proposal and once that’s out, we’ll have a lot better idea of what exactly they’re looking for and respond. But we’re trying to get ahead of the game as much as we can.”

The Michigan Launch Initiative, which aims to establish “spaceport operations and command center facilities” in Michigan, was organized by the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association with backing from a private investment group, as “multiple aerospace companies have plans to launch thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit,” the resolution states.

The Michigan Launch Initiative is a “public/private nonprofit entity that provides a collaborative platform for academia, industry and governmental agencies to provide LEO (low-Earth orbit) and hypersonic launch technology for commercial and defense application,” according to a press release about the initiative.

Sawyer is one of five sites in Michigan under consideration, along with Chippewa County Airport, the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and sites in Rogers City and Alpena.

Sawyer is under consideration due to its long runway and rural location, which are important components of a potential launch site, officials said previously.

Sawyer International Airport, formerly a U.S. Air Force base, covers around 2,100 acres and has a 150-foot-wide, 9,070-foot-long runway. Sawyer’s runway would need to be extended back to its original length “to accommodate the payload of the aircraft,” board documents state. The site will need an estimated 650 acres, which would require development of county forest land located near the airport, according to a project summary.

“Northern Michigan is uniquely positioned for a polar orbit satellite launch facility: low density population, extensive restricted airspace, interstate highway system accessible, engineering and manufacturing capacity,” Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, said in a press release.

According to the association, the proposed launch site would conduct 22 to 25 launches of low-Earth orbit satellites annually, once operational.

The proposed spaceport could conduct vertical launches that take off directly from the launch pad, as well as horizontal launches, which means the low-orbit satellites would be launched from an airplane.

The satellites at a northern Michigan site would be launched into the polar orbit, rather than the equatorial orbit that is better reached by more southerly launch sites, officials said.

The estimated revenue per launch is $15 million, with an estimated $375 million in revenue annually. The association estimates a $50 million to $75 million budget for infrastructure investment involved with the project.

The launch facility site selection could happen as early as the second quarter of this year, according to the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association.

The group aims to secure public and private funding later this year.

MAMA had requested $2 million from the state to conduct surveys of potential sites and this was included in a $1.3 billion spending bill passed in late December. However, the launch site’s funds have “since been disapproved because of ‘drafting errors’ in the legislation,” board documents state.

However, board documents state, the “launch initiatives proponents insist that the drafting issues will not doom their project. Brown said he is in discussions with state officials and still believes that the grant money could be released.”

Permits and environmental impacts are projected to be handled in 2020, with groundbreaking on the facility slated for 2021 and the first launch projected to take place in 2022, pending governmental approval at multiple levels, officials said.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal .net.