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Sawyer in running for spaceport designation, activity

A spaceport at Sawyer? A cosmodrome in our county? Some might say that sounds out of this world.

But it’s certainly a possibility, as the Michigan Launch Initiative — a public-private partnership organized by the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association and backed by private investors — is looking to establish spaceport operations and command center facilities at a site in Northern Michigan and Marquette County’s own Sawyer International Airport is a contender.

Although the decision about a horizontal launch site was initially expected to be announced on Tuesday, the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturing Association now anticipates making its decision in mid-February, Sawyer International Airport Manager Duane DuRay said in a phone interview this morning.

Naturally, local officials have high hopes that Sawyer will be selected, as do we. At this time, we see the project as a promising prospect for the county, and anecdotally, many area residents seem excited about the possibility.

The operation could have a multi-million dollar economic impact on the area, as the spaceport is expected to generate up to 1,000 jobs, as well as “an entire ecosystem” of businesses related to the spaceport, MAMA Executive Director Gavin Brown said at a May meeting with Marquette County officials.

This could be absolutely transformative for the area and its residents, as it has the potential to create an industry that encourages local talent to stay in Marquette County. It could also present major revitalization opportunities for K.I. Sawyer and the county as a whole.

Furthermore, we agree with local officials that Marquette County and Sawyer International Airport have much to offer in terms of a potential spaceport location, as Sawyer — formerly a U.S. Air Force base — boasts a number of assets that could make it an opportune site for a spaceport, as its long runway and rural location are important components of a potential launch site, officials said previously.

“We think it makes sense to look at us and think we’re a strong contender for consideration,” Marquette County Administrator Scott Erbisch told the Journal in a recent interview.

The other potential spaceport locations include the Chippewa County Airport, the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda and sites in Rogers City and Alpena.

Horizontal and vertical launches are being considered, and separate sites may be chosen for each launch type.

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

The proposed spaceport would focus extensively on low-Earth-orbit, or LEO, satellite launches into polar orbit.

This allows the launches to be done at a reduced cost compared to those done at launch sites that also include manned flight operations, Brown said, meaning that Northern Michigan could carve out a neat little niche for this type of launch.

Once operational, the site would conduct 22 to 25 launches of LEO satellites annually. The estimated revenue per launch is $15 million, with the project estimated to cost around $90 to $120 million, Brown said.

While it doesn’t currently seem the organization is seeking funding or tax breaks from local entities, the state budget includes $2.5 million to help develop a low-orbit satellite-launch site and command center, according to a Detroit News report.

We think this is a worthy investment, as the spaceport is projected to generate about $250 million in revenue in just its first year, growing to $750 million-$850 million in the following years.

Furthermore, it’s not expected to be a “boom and bust” type of industry. The jobs and economic impact are likely to endure due to the very nature of the satellites being launched.

“This truly is an economic vehicle that will contribute,” Brown said in a May Journal story on the matter. “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 the choice and the finer details remain to be seen, at this time, we support the idea of bringing this transformative industry to the area and believe Marquette County’s airport, infrastructure, location, and residents make it the premier site for a spaceport.