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Safety concerns dominate planning for space port

Milton Bates

On July 4, 2020, Rocket Lab, a company that specializes in sending satellites into low earth orbits, launched its thirteenth rocket from a remote site in New Zealand.

Four minutes after liftoff, the rocket exploded, destroying a costly payload of satellites and scattering debris. Fortunately, it had reached an altitude where most of the fragments burned up before landing on earth.

It was not Rocket Lab’s first failure. Not quite three weeks later, Gerald Corkin, chairman of the Marquette County Board of Commissioners, announced a plan to launch small rockets rom Granot Loma, 16 miles north of Marquette. The connection between these events? Both are counting on the same vehicle, Rocket Lab’s Electron, to accomplish their goals.

The commissioners had hired an aerospace consultant, Explorer Solutions, to evaluate vertical launch sites in the county. It was Explorer Solutions that recommended Rocket Lab’s Electron. It was the right size and had a relatively good safety record in an industry where over 30% of FAA-approved small rockets have exploded or crashed since the beginning of 2006 (spacelaunchreport.com).

The consulting firm onetheless advised against vertical launches from one site, Sawyer Airport, because it was too close to a populated area.

Though fewer people would be at risk if Granot Loma were chosen, Explorer Solutions recommended evacuating residents of five or six nearby houses and taking care to clear a wide debris field below the rocket trajectory.

This included boats, since the rockets would fly over Lake Superior.

Working in tandem with the county board, the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, a lobbying group, had hired its own consultants. MAMA’s executive director, Gavin Brown, apparently found their advice more to his liking.

In a televised interview on Nov. 11, he contradicted or glossed over safety measures in the Explorer Solutions report. There would be no evacuations, he insisted. Furthermore, the launches would be practically inaudible and the launch site invisible to anyone passing it along the lakeshore.

County residents can check out these claims by going to YouTube video of an Electron launch on November 20. Their impressions will probably diverge from Mr. Brown’s description.

On that occasion, Rocket Lab succeeded for the first time in returning the rocket’s first stage by parachute to a water landing. Though the company hopes to use helicopters rather than boats for retrieval in the future, it has yet to find a way to salvage the second stage and fairing.

A rocket that veers off course must still be commandexploded, with unpredictable fallout.

We must remember that the Upper Peninsula is not New Zealand. Retrieval of launch debris from Lake Superior would be more challenging for nearly half the year, which means that rocket components, including batteries, will end up in the lake–hardly the kind of “green technology” touted by Mr. Brown.

He estimates that 20-36 rockets would be launched per year from Granot Loma. Given our climate, these would have to be concentrated in a six to nine-month window.

Weather is one reason, together with the cost of transporting components to sites in the Upper Peninsula, that a representative of SpaceFund, a venture capital firm based in Houston, has questioned the economic feasibility of MAMA’s project (Detroit Free Press, Mar. 16, 2019).

Larger rockets such as the Falcon 9 used by SpaceX are reusable and can easily reach the same polar orbits targeted by MAMA with many more satellites per launch, potentially reducing the cost to satellite clients.

The Falcon 9 has had over a hundred successful launches to date, with one pre-launch failure and one loss in space.

Whether you are a business person, an elected official, an environmentalist, or simply a Marquette County resident concerned about safety, you have reason to be skeptical of Gavin Brown’s sales pitch.

Editor’s note: Milton Bates is a resident of Marquette County.

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