OSCODA – Oscoda Township is among four communities in the state vying to bring in a spaceport operation. A site visit is just one step in the process, and this was conducted in Oscoda on Oct. 3-4, by representatives of Michigan Launch Initiative (MLI).

Briefings on the visit were provided recently by both township Superintendent Dave Schaeffer and Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport (OWA) Manager Gary Kellan.

Among those involved in the visit was Gavin Brown, executive director of Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA).

Schaeffer’s summary was given during the Oct. 8 Economic Improvement Committee (EIC) meeting, where he shared that he took part in a tour of OWA with the site selectors. They went over a number of items, including the responses to the request for information (RFI) documents that were submitted by the airport authority last month, in order to proceed with competing in the MLI review and site selection consideration process.

Schaeffer said the RFI  – which was reported on in the Sept. 25 edition of this publication – contained a plethora of information. When the site selectors arrived, they were also given boxes of supplemental information regarding the environmental analysis at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. “So they’ve been able to digest a little bit of that.”

According to Schaeffer, MLI has also visited the other spaceport contenders in Michigan, those being Alpena, Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie.

“There were two more that were originally in that proposal, and it was Rogers City and Mackinaw City,” he said, noting that these two have since dropped out. “So we’re in the final four for that, and the site selection committee is to have a decision by January 2, 2020.”

As has been noted previously, if Oscoda were to be chosen as the Michigan site, it would still have to compete on a national level for licensing through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Space System program.

EIC Chair Mark Wygant said it seems as though there hasn’t been any involvement from state representatives on this initiative.

Schaeffer pointed out that MAMA has received $2 million for the site selection work. “So the state is really viewing it as a private equity venture at this point.”

Once a site is chosen, then the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Michigan Defense Center will get involved and focus on that particular location.

Wygant said he also wondered about the role of elected officials. “In other words, at some point politics will come into play to some degree, especially when competing against other states.”

“Other states, yes,” Schaeffer agreed. “This is just to select the Michigan site. Once that Michigan site is selected the first of the year, then we’ll be able to move on to the FAA licensing portion of that.” 

He said the selectors will be looking at dozens of criteria when choosing a spaceport site, based on the horizontal and vertical launch criteria in the FAA application.

According to Schaeffer, decision makers are considering any “game changer” scenarios first, to determine if any of the four sites are absolutely not going to be approved by the FAA. They will then move on from here to get more definitive criteria ranking.

“When you think of your traditional rocket launching into the air, if you’re traveling over high densely populated areas – hospitals, schools – to get that rocket into restricted airspace, there’s going to be issues with that and the FAA won’t approve that,” he said of one example with the vertical launches.

“We have the largest runway out of all four of those sites. The other sites are 9,100 [feet]; we’re 11,800 [feet],” Schaeffer continued.

“That’s in our favor for horizontal launch, when you think of retrofitting an aircraft – either underwing or under the belly of an aircraft – having a longer runway, bigger planes, bigger payload, to be able to shoot a rocket off from that plane,” he said.

He told the EIC he would keep them apprised once he hears more about how things are going with MAMA and MLI.

Kellan spoke about the site visit, as well, during the Oct. 10 OWA Authority (OWAA) meeting.

He said that the MLI presentation given during the event was virtually the same as what was shared during the MAMA Space Symposium, which he attended last month in Traverse City.

Among other discussions, the representatives described the growing need for satellite based systems in Lower Earth Orbit, with this network of satellites serving everything from voice and data communications, weather monitoring and autonomous vehicles, to military defense needs, global Internet access and GPS.

Kellan said there were also talks about complications with vertical launches. The graphics in the presentation typically showed these devices right along a coastline, so they’re not being launched over populated airspace.

“We’re only 2.7 miles to the beach on Lake Huron, but they can’t do a hook shot. They said that it has to go directly north,” Kellan told board members. However, directly north would put this over Alcona County, Presque Isle County and so on.

According to Kellan, Kalitta Air provided use of its aircraft to give an aerial tour of the airfield to the site selectors, as well.

He said MLI also heard from Kalitta representatives about their capabilities in Oscoda, and their interest in potentially providing support for a spaceport operation in the township.

Following this, Kellan said a similar tour took place at Phoenix Composite Solutions. Staff demonstrated the types of research and development projects that they’ve been involved in, the solutions they’ve provided and how a composite material could potentially be utilized for the parts that would go on either launch vehicles or space vehicles.

When the tours were done, participants came back to the OWAA building for a wrap-up session.

“Did they ask for more money?” questioned OWAA member and township Supervisor Aaron Weed.

“There is some discussion about additional cost,” Kellan answered.

When Weed asked what this meant, Kellan only mentioned the environmental work-up. He said he could expand further when OWAA went into closed session during their meeting that day, to discuss correspondence related to the spaceport.

Kellan said the Phase I process is underway, which involves comparing all the sites and making the selection for Michigan.

Phase II – estimated to take 18 months – deals with such site specific items as the environmental and economic impacts on the area. The Phase III steps will begin in conjunction with the second phase.