OSCODA – Updates on the Michigan Launch Initiative (MLI) were shared at both the May 11 Oscoda Township Board of Trustees meeting, and the May 14 Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport Authority (OWAA) meeting.

In each discussion, reference was made to a May 6 letter from Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) Executive Director Gavin Brown, which was addressed to Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport (OWA) Manager Gary Kellan.

Brown thanked Kellan for organizing that morning’s Oscoda-Wurtsmith Spaceport Development (OWSD) meeting, and also gave a list of items that he wanted to reiterate. These are summarized as follows:

• The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the OWSD project by approximately two months.

• The pandemic has created some challenges, such as travel prohibitions, but work is continuing.

• BRPH has been engaged to conduct the next phase of the feasibility analysis specific to a horizontal launch facility at OWA. (As previously reported, BRPH is a planning and engineering company which has completed a number of spaceport-related projects throughout the country).

• BRPH will also assist in the site selection process for the MLI command-and-control center.

• Conversations with potential launch partners have proceeded, and MAMA is continuing to evaluate and determine the needs and opportunities relative to a horizontal space launch facility and the local governmental and business entities in the Oscoda area.

• In-person activities (e.g. site visits) will go on as allowed under Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders.

• MAMA expects to submit the final feasibility report on a horizontal launch facility and command-and-control center to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) by the end of June.

• There continues to be national excitement around a horizontal space launch facility in Michigan.

• The MLI-OWSD project will be a focus at the North American Space Summit, to be held Aug. 30 through Sept. 2, at the Grand Traverse Resort in Traverse City.

• The vertical space launch announcement will proceed, based on the ability to hold in-person events under Whitmer’s executive orders, and MAMA will keep the authority updated on the details for that announcement.

Oscoda Township Superintendent Dave Schaeffer, during the board of trustees meeting, said that Economic Improvement Director Todd Dickerson, Kellan and himself have been engaged with those from MAMA, MEDC and the Economic Development Administration over the last few weeks, regarding this project.

Kellan also spoke on the matter at the OWAA meeting, first giving some background details.

He said that a meeting was held at the start of the year and, not long after, MAMA sent a list of requests for additional information about underlying real estate, Air Force deed restrictions, EGLE deed restrictions and more. All of this was compiled and sent back.

“But then it was sort of quiet for a while,” said Kellan. Therefore, the Oscoda representatives contacted Brown and suggested holding regular work sessions in order to move the process along.

“So, we had the first one last week,” he noted. In addition to the aforementioned individuals, this was also attended by OWA Assistant Manager Jack Brown, Attorney Rob Eppert, OWAA Board/Executive Committee member Mike Munson, OWAA Chair Kevin Boyat and Oscoda Township Supervisor Aaron Weed.

Kellan said the OWSD work sessions are likely to be held monthly, and the next one has already been scheduled for June.

OWAA member David Dailey asked whether a team will be set up to take part in the sessions, or if the idea is to stick with the same attendees, to which Kellan said he is open to suggestions.

Boyat pointed out that these sessions have only recently been initiated. “Probably after the next meeting we’ll have a better idea of what they want, so we’ll know how to set up a team.”

According to Dailey, one of the next items to figure out involves obtaining a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He said that, when he spoke with Brown prior to the work session, Brown advised that the operator who is going to be doing the flying is the one who needs to get FAA approval.

Dailey asked whether OWAA has identified this, or if Kalitta Air has expressed interest in being the one to fly the airplane.

“The way I understand, they were working on it. Gavin was working on it then,” Boyat replied.

Munson said he thinks what he was hearing at the meeting, is that this is similar to going to the doctor. Nowadays, especially with COVID-19, people can simply call their doctor and maybe get some sort of diagnosis. “But, by and large, they need to put hands on you so they can determine what’s wrong. And this whole spaceport thing has that same concept. Gavin and/or the people involved have to go to these places; they’ve got to travel. And that’s been the one setback, that they haven’t had a chance to travel.”

By waiting for another meeting, Munson said he thinks the group will get a better understanding of the work MAMA is going to have to do to move this along because, right now, everything is at a standstill since they can’t go by the FAA guidelines. MAMA has to physically go to these places and talk face-to-face with those who may end up playing a role in the potential spaceport, such as Kalitta Air.

Dailey said he understood but he noted that Kalitta Air CEO/Owner, Conrad “Connie” Kalitta, has been invited to all of the other spaceport meetings, so he didn’t see why Kalitta – or at least a representative of his – wasn’t invited to the latest one. “Don’t you think we ought to invite a representative from Kalitta who is on base and has been supporting this?”

Kellan said this question was posed toward the end of the session. “We asked who should be invited to the next meeting, and how the spaceport would be organized going forward.”

He said the consensus of attendees at the initial meeting was that these are still preliminary discussions, so the thought was to keep the workgroup somewhat small for now. “And then we’ll have, as a work study session, what additional members might come to it. But we wanted to keep the workgroup the same for the next meeting.”

“I just think it’s a mistake not to include Connie Kalitta. That’s my personal view,” Dailey remarked, adding that Kalitta has been one of the people who has supported this right from the get-go.

“We can ask Mr. Brown who else he’d like to add to the work session,” Kellan offered.

When it was time for public comments, local resident Greg Cole thanked the authority for the update. “I’m on Van Etten Lake and the spaceport has definitely interested me so, when you gave the opportunity to come into this meeting, that’s what I was planning on listening for.”

“It’s a ways out yet, but every day it looks a little better,” Boyat said.

Munson added that the pandemic has had an impact, but, “We’ll get through it.”

As reported in the Feb. 25 edition of this publication, MAMA announced the results of their MLI horizontal launch site feasibility study, which revealed that OWA has been named a top candidate for such launches of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. The Feb. 18 press conference was held at the Michigan State Capitol Building in Lansing.

A number of local stakeholders have expressed excitement over the possibility, but it should be noted that a spaceport in Oscoda has not been set in stone. While OWA was deemed the preferred site for this activity in Michigan, the remaining hurdles to overcome include additional feasibility work, as well as obtaining the Commercial Space Transportation License from the FAA.

According to MAMA, OWA received the highest ranking in the site selection process because of its runway infrastructure, business capacity, operational strength and safety track record.

“This is an exciting next step in the process of developing Michigan’s ecosystem of space technology,” Brown said at the time. “While much work lies ahead, we are pleased to share these initial results from our due diligence. Such a facility would solidify Michigan’s leadership role in the aerospace and defense industry while becoming an important economic catalyst.”

The next phase of the feasibility analysis will include having more site-specific discussions with governmental licensing and regulatory agencies, as well as partners in the commercial sector. 

As Schaeffer has described, OWA was identified as a strong candidate to serve as a spaceport in support of horizontal launches to deploy small and midsize satellites. Horizontal launch facilities utilize large-body jet aircraft and a traditional runway to serve as the first stage of a space vehicle launch sequence. Among the attributes that contributed to OWA’s selection is the 11,800-foot-long runway, plus the near proximity to unpopulated airspace over Lake Huron. Additionally, there are already significant aerospace support capabilities at OWA, including those provided by Kalitta Air, Phoenix Composite Solutions and Oscoda Engine Services.

MAMA said that OWA’s available development site properties and broad community support also contributed to the selection.

Following the Lansing press conference, a public meeting on the potential spaceport was held at Oscoda High School on Feb. 21.

It was then that Brown said the main focus of the MLI is on LEO and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites. In other words, large rockets won’t be launched in Oscoda.

He has shared that LEO satellites are used for a range of services, such as voice and data communications, global Internet access, autonomous vehicle network and weather monitoring.

Brown also noted that MEO and LEO are currently a $438 billion industry. “By 2048, it’s a $3.2 trillion industry.”

For more information, visit www.michman.org.