Spaceport for Sawyer?

Local officials learn more about Michigan Launch Initiative, site selection process at meeting

Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, speaks to local officials at Sawyer International Airport Monday about a proposed northern Michigan spaceport. Sawyer International Airport is one of several sites in the state under consideration for the proposed spaceport, which would launch low-Earth-orbit satellites. Brown plans to announce the site selection in September. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)

K.I. SAWYER — Sawyer International Airport is one of several airports in the state under consideration as a potential site for a proposed northern Michigan spaceport.

Due to this, local officials gathered Monday at Sawyer to learn more about the Michigan Launch Initiative, the spaceport site selection process and the anticipated economic impacts of a spaceport in the area from Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association.

The Michigan Launch Initiative, which aims to establish spaceport operations and command center facilities in northern Michigan, is a public-private partnership organized by MAMA with backing from a private investment group, he said.

“Our mission is to highlight the resources in the state of Michigan regarding aerospace and defense,” Brown told attendees.

Northern Michigan is a favorable region for a polar orbit satellite launch facility, Brown said, due to its low population density, extensive restricted airspace, interstate highway system accessibility, as well as its engineering and manufacturing capacity.

Several sites in the region are under consideration in addition to Sawyer, including Chippewa County Airport, the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and sites in Rogers City and Alpena.

There are a number of reasons Sawyer, formerly a U.S. Air Force base, could be an opportune site for the spaceport, officials said, as its long runway and rural location are important components of a potential launch site.

The airport covers around 2,100 acres and has a 150-foot-wide, 9,070-foot-long runway, which would need to be extended back to its original length “to accommodate the payload of the aircraft,” a project summary states. The runway was rehabilitated and shortened just last year by 3,300 feet because it was costly to maintain and longer than what’s needed for the airport’s operations, officials said at the time.

The spaceport site selected would need around 650 acres available, which would require development of county forestland located near the airport, according to a project summary.

Several local officials asked if Sawyer was a competitive contender for the spaceport.

“You weigh out very strong,” Brown responded.

The proposed spaceport project could have a multimillion dollar economic impact on the area selected, as it could bring up to 1,000 jobs to the area, as well as “an entire ecosystem” of businesses related to the spaceport, Brown said.

Michigan’s proposed spaceport would focus extensively on low-Earth-orbit, or LEO, satellite launches into polar orbit, rather than the equatorial orbit that is better reached by more southerly launch sites, Brown said.

This is important, he said, as there is a growing demand for LEO satellite launches, with over 80,000 launches projected to occur over the next 12 years. As many as 60 of these satellites could be launched with one rocket, Brown said.

The spaceport would 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.

Once operational, the site would conduct 22 to 25 launches of LEO satellites annually. The estimated revenue per launch is $15 million.

The project is estimated to cost around $90 to $120 million, Brown said. In its first year of operation, the spaceport is projected to generate about $250 million in revenue, growing to $750 million-$850 million in the following years, Brown said.

“This truly is an economic vehicle that will contribute,” Brown said. “It’s almost like an annuity program, because once you start launching, it’s not like these satellites stay up for 30 to 40 years, they last about six to eight years and then you have to keep launching.”

While satellite launches can currently cost $40-$60 million at sites such as Cape Canaveral, Brown expects the cost of a satellite launch at the proposed northern Michigan site to be $4 million to $17 million. One reason for this, he said, is that unlike other spaceports, the proposed Michigan facility would not be involved with deep space or manned flights.

“Why is that important? Because you can build a facility focused just on that, at a cost structure nobody else has in America,” Brown said. “So there’s an economic picture there that will actually demonstrate a cost efficiency — I call it a value — that nobody else has.”

Another distinguishing factor about the MLI’s plan, he said, is that the proposed spaceport site would be the first “green” spaceport in the world and nation.

“We’re going to be environmentally friendly, we’re going to have biofuels, we’re going to make it a carbon-neutral facility as much as possible,” Brown said.

However, before a site is selected for the proposed spaceport, extensive assessments of each site will need to be conducted, he said.

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

“The governor and her staff wanted the language clarified,” Brown said. “We’re clarifying that language through a new bill introduction that should be done hopefully this week.”

He is hopeful that funding for initial site assessments will be available soon and that site assessments can begin by August, he said. Brown emphasized that he’s not planning to move back the project schedule and plans to announce the site selection at the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association Space Symposium to be held Sept. 9-10 in Traverse City.

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

The project needs to stay on track, he said, as it can take about two years for the Federal Aviation Administration licensing process, and the facility is expected to take about 18 months to build.

Another reason to move quickly is because Michigan is one of several states currently vying for FAA licensing for such a facility, Brown said. He hopes Michigan’s opportune location and resources, along with several unique aspects of the plan, will distinguish it from other contenders.

Many asked what the community could to do support the project and increase the chances of the spaceport coming to Sawyer. Brown emphasized that garnering the support of state and local governments is important, as well as private industry readiness and community engagement.

Marquette County Board Chairman Gerald Corkin told Brown: “Marquette County is very interested in this and you’ve got our strong support out of our county. We’ve worked on a lot of tough issues in the last 20 years and you can depend on us.”

Overall, with only a few sites in the nation licensed to launch satellites in this fashion, Brown hopes the plan developed will make Michigan the site of the nation’s next spaceport, as it would have a substantial economic impact on the community selected as the site, as well as the state as a whole.

“It is our goal is to actually have a transforming effect on the state by working with our governor, working with our senators, working with our House members to actually show how Michigan can once again — like we did in automotive — take an industry and be leaders; and do so with our brainpower and our resources,” Brown said.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.