Sawyer International may become interstellar?

MARQUETTE — Sawyer International Airport could be one of the next sites to launch small satellites into low-Earth orbit that would circle the polar caps.

A spaceport, also known as a cosmodrome, is a designated site for launching spacecraft such as satellites into orbit, and the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association is considering five Michigan sites for the next spaceport location, with Sawyer being one of the sites where the low-Earth orbit satellites could be launched.

“There’s two ways they may launch these things: One is vertically, like space Cape Canaveral-type rocket,” said Sawyer Director of Operations Steve Schenden. “The other is they put them in a known aircraft, get it up to 40,000 feet and launch the rocket from up there … They might shoot 30 or 40 of them in one rocket. They figure because they’re lower to orbit they’ll deteriorate in 8 to 10 years and they’ll burn up before they come back to Earth.”

The satellites will be used for weather, communication and other advances, explained Jody Lindberg, who’s responsible for development and marketing at the airport.

After a long wait, MAMA was recently approved for the grant money necessary to complete the feasibility studies to determine which site would be best suited for the spaceport. Sawyer is now waiting to receive a Request For Information. Airport staff will hire Explorer Solutions to assist them with this document, which will provide MAMA with the details of the area being considered such as nearby population, area environment and more.

Sawyer is an ideal location, Lindberg said.

“Marquette is really good because we’ve got the population here, we’ve got the acreage, we’re above the 45th parallel, so when you launch it up and you go horizontal it takes less energy and fuel to launch something horizontal if you’re already above the 45th parallel,” she said. “We’re in a really great spot here.”

Being chosen as a spaceport location would also be a great economic benefit for the county, she said.

A total of 500 to 1,000 jobs would be created from the spaceport alone with an average salary of $130,000 annually, Lindberg said, and area businesses such as hotels and restaurants would also benefit from the creation of the site.

“I think the economic impact on the community would be huge,” Lindberg said.

Lindberg and Schenden both noted that the spaceport would also increase tourism to the area as other spaceports throughout the nation, in areas with higher populations, have around 20,000 people come to see the launches.

“Even here you could see a couple thousand people coming to see a vertical launch and that would be a big boost to the economy, local hotels and restaurants,” Lindberg said.

Other sites in Michigan being considered are Chippewa County Airport, the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and sites in Rogers City and Alpena.

So, what are the chances Sawyer will be chosen as the next spaceport location?

“I think that we’re right there,” Schenden said. “You can look at all of them and see little advantages and disadvantages to each site, but we seem to have a lot of advantages.”

He noted that other airports being considered aren’t above the 45th parallel, are too close to largely populated areas for launching, and have too short of runways. And although the runway at Sawyer was just shortened last year, if chosen, length may need to be added back to complete the launches. But there is the room at Sawyer to have all the amenities needed for the spaceport, such as land to store rocket fuel and a launch pad site.

“The vertical launch, it would require a pad to go in; probably end up being west of here,” Schenden said. “There’s a lot of open county forestland that’s really undeveloped, where you wouldn’t disturb any houses or anything.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is only looking to build two more spaceports in the nation and Marquette has the determined and educated workforce to support the spaceport, Lindberg added.

A steering committee has been created to guide the project and subcommittees composed of community volunteers are also working to prepare the area, if chosen, by looking at the quality of life in the area, infrastructure and more.

The proposal has proved that the many communities of our county can come together for the greater good of the area and that the airport has the support of the citizens, Lindberg said.

The location of the next spaceport will tentatively be announced in December.

Trinity Carey can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is tcarey@miningjournal.net.