OSCODA – Inclusion in a trillion-dollar industry, support of more environmentally-friendly projects and involvement in cutting edge technology. These are just a few examples of the perceived benefits, should Oscoda Township become home to a spaceport operation.
Gavin Brown – executive director of Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) – gave a presentation at the April 11 meeting of the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport Authority (OWAA) to discuss the possibility of bringing a launch facility, both vertical and horizontal, to the state.
In attendance were representatives of Oscoda and AuSable townships, Phoenix Composite Solutions, the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport (OWA) and Kalitta Air, including CEO Connie Kalitta. Consensus from attendees was that such an endeavor would have a significant, positive impact on the community and surrounding areas.
Oscoda has been named as one of the possible site locations for the Michigan Launch Initiative (MLI), and Brown explained that funding is being awaited which was approved by former Governor Rick Snyder. This is currently under discussion with Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
“For some reason, there’s language that did not sit well with her budget director, so that’s where it stands,” according to Brown, who noted that money was already approved and appropriated to bring forward Phase I of the proposed project.
Should the plan proceed, he advised that activity at the launch site in Oscoda would involve low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. There is no intention to carry out any manned or deep-space operations, as the idea would be to specifically put low orbit satellites into the LEO constellations.
He added that Michigan will provide a value for polar orbit, not equatorial.
“The key to that is, actually we’re in prime position to utilize our resources of both talent, education and the companies that are here that can provide the manufacturing for these components,” Brown said.
“And provide what I would call an ecosystem – so it’s not just a launch facility itself, but to build an entire ecosystem utilizing those companies already here, and those that would be attracted to it, so that we can look at things like education,” he continued.
For example, he said a partnership could be formed with Alpena Community College (ACC) and a program set up to attract young maintenance workers, which would have an impact on other aspects of the community.
Brown, who recently returned from the annual Space Symposium in Colorado, said that all 50 states – in one form or another – are going to go after this. “All these states want this because it is a rare economic opportunity that is going to be utilized as early as 2022.”
He added that reports from Morgan Stanley indicate that this is going to be a $1.1 trillion industry by 2040, while Bank of America said it will be a $3.3 trillion business by 2048.
Brown said that if the initiative moves forward, there will be plenty of opportunities for public engagement, involvement in decision making and community feedback from residents.
“It’s not just going to be private enterprise but, what will happen, is private enterprise will be funding this,” he said.
For whichever community is selected, Brown said the attraction already is about $250 million to $800 million in investment for the community.
“That means that, basically, anything for the infrastructure will be provided by what is the strongest economic engine in this world – U.S. business,” he said.
“We won’t be dependent on the local or state government, other than the state governments being asked to do the site surveys for Phase I,” he continued, adding that, otherwise, it has to be paid by the individual municipalities if they want to be involved.
Brown, a resident of northern Michigan, remarked that wherever the launch center is established, those involved will make that community and the land that it’s on more environmentally friendly by being there.
“There is a sense of urgency to this,” he then cautioned, given the competition from other states.
He noted that a site has not been confirmed and he has to be objective but, one reason he thinks the launch area would do well in northern Michigan is because of the state’s rich manufacturing heritage and the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base facility itself.
Brown said there are some things both strategically and geographically which come into play and set Michigan apart, such as it’s location to the North Pole.
He explained that the launch facility would involve small to mid-size rockets, measuring anywhere from the size of a basketball, to about one yard long.
“They’re looking for launch facilities, because over 10,000 satellites will be launched in the next 10 years,” Brown said, of information he obtained during the symposium.
He said that, even if the funding isn’t received from the state, he’s already engaged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) because he doesn’t want Michigan to be at the back of the line.
For example, he said New Jersey and Maine don’t have the resources Michigan does, but what they do have are people aggressively seeking to bring such a facility to their area.
“We are going to work on your behalf. We are not going to stop being aggressive because, if you do stop, that goes away – the opportunity vanishes like vapor,” Brown said.
“And, quite frankly, I think it complements the aerospace presence we already have,” he went on, noting that companies such as Kalitta Air and Phoenix Composites Solutions have invested in the local community for aerospace. “What I seek to do is not to take anything away, but to add to that.”
He referenced the vertical launches, or those involving rockets, but also explained the horizontal launches which are being proposed.
“Horizontal is basically a 747 or a DC-10 taking, what I would say a pay load up, and then dropping it off at 30,000 feet and then it comes up,” he described.
After it is launched, lands and is re-supplied, it can be taken back up the very next day.
“There’s no one better in this world to retrofit 747s or DC-10s then what we have right here, with what you’ve built,” Brown said to Kalitta.
He shared that the U.S. Air Force (USAF) is planning about 3,000 satellite constellations; SpaceX already has a license for 7,000; Blue Origin has another 2,000; Amazon wants to put up its own constellation; and One Web has plans for another 2,000.
“The problem is, there’s not enough launch sites to do this,” said Brown.
He shared that he would also like to bring a wind tunnel to the proposed Oscoda facility, which could be tied in with an academic institution such as ACC.
He said the reason is that there is not a wind tunnel in the U.S. which allows for hypersonic testing up to Mach 10 and Mach 12.
“You will have all the industry that is doing hypersonics, present. Because they need to do their wind tunnel testing, then they have to go up in the air to test it,” Brown said.
“Guess who has the largest restricted air space east of the Mississippi? Michigan,” he pointed out.
“Again, we don’t have to relocate or allocate assets. It’s already in place. This is what makes us so strong to have this,” he said.
Should a site be established in Michigan, he guesses that those from Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Pennsylvania will all want to participate where the physical site is. “Which means they come to us; we don’t go to them.”
Brown said college universities working on research and development will also be interested in having a presence in the community.
There are about five different sites in northern Michigan which have thrown their hats into the ring for the launch facility, including Oscoda and Alpena, according to Brown.
He said there is also the command center aspect and, while in Colorado, the USAF asked him about what the centers can do for not only launching, but also to track a polar orbit.
“So what they would do is actually bring back an active status base from the Air Force to the state of Michigan,” he said.
Brown commented that those in Oscoda know first-hand what happens when a base closes. “With no active bases, they don’t look forward to putting any more future bases in. So, by having an active status, you actually then put your hat in to get more.”
With a commercial project such as the one being proposed, he said everything that exists in the community today will have to be utilized for the effort, including hotels, housing and restaurants.
In fact, Brown predicts the facility would have an even greater impact on the area than when Wurtsmith was active.
He said there will be a dramatic growth of investment and employees, with upwards of 1,200 people involved – from government, private and other sectors – in addition to a boom in tourism.
“So think of it this way, by launching here, you’ve suddenly become a tourism destination spot,” he noted.
If all the environmental studies are in place for Oscoda, he said he believes that those involved can work with the FAA to lower the time line down from two years to 10 months.
“The build-out would start in 2021, the first quarter,” he said.
“What’s important is, if we get the license from the FAA, we can actually do horizontal with a 12,000-foot runway. You can actually lift off and do those, once you get the license,” Brown continued.
While the vertical activity accounts for a longer build-out phase, “We can actually start getting letters of intent from companies that want to do launching for horizontal,” he advised.
He noted that United Launch Alliance charges about $40 million per launch of a satellite, as it stands today.
“We’re going to be doing it at about $17 [million] and under, for the exact same. And we’re going to do it at a proper ratio that’s very healthy, because we don’t have the infrastructure costs of a Cape Canaveral or a Vandenberg,” Brown said.
By having a very specific focus on low orbit activities, Brown said launches in Oscoda could occur every week. However, Cape Canaveral in Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – because of the launch facilities themselves – take about eight to 12 weeks to turn around.
He added that, once a site is selected, organizers will be working with the USAF on the dynamics of what they would like for a launch site.
“So we’re going to be working closely with not only the commercial, such as Blue Origin, Elon Musk with SpaceX and the others, but we’re also going to be working with the DoD,” Brown said.
As for hypersonic efforts, he said it was about eight years ago when the U.S. government invested roughly $200 million in a program for which four different companies made hypersonic launch vehicles to test. Each one went into the ocean and nothing could be retrieved. “So our government cut it out. The Chinese and the Russians went forward with hypersonic – we’re behind the curve.”
According to Brown, President Donald Trump has made a declaration to have Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan work to beat what other countries have in terms of hypersonics.
Therefore, Brown encouraged taking advantage of the investments in hypersonic activities.
“Because they’re saying to me, we have money to invest and we will invest if you have the right resources to help us become the leader,” he said, likening this to a modern day space race.
“Do we want to be part of it, or do we want another state to take advantage of what we let go? I believe, here in Michigan, we have the mind set; we have the talent,” he said.
“If we’re passive and if we think it’s just going to come to us, it’s not,” he warned. “The contribution to that county, or the airport or the region that gets this, is literally billions of dollars.”
As far as launches in the commercial space race, Brown said the U.S. has done 202; Europe, 169; Russia, 162; and China, 23. In the next couple years, between Russia and China, they plan to do more than 400.
“Why? Because they’re launching low orbit space satellites, basically, to set up their system. They have that competitive edge,” said Brown. “The problem with this is, if they beat us to this game, they basically command space. And if they command space, I assure you, it changes all of our lives.”
He advised that the U.S. led the space race up until 2017 and, if in the next four years this country doesn’t work to create the sites needed for the more than 12,000 satellites, then other locations will have the advantage.
Further, 27 states have shown interest in a spaceport.
“Ours is going to be the first green spaceport, by the way. We’re going to use bio-fuels,” he went on.
“It’s a little more expensive – bio-fuel – but if you look at the methane that we currently have in the state of Michigan, that we just let out in the air, we’re going to capture that,” he explained. “So liquid oxygen, we’ll be able to produce right on the facility through green methods.”
Not to mention, Brown said the launching of a rocket is one of the most exciting things he has ever witnessed. “You can feel it, you can see it and it gets people excited. But it’s the technology that’s going to be utilized and grow for many decades. And this is what’s important – it’s not a dying industry, it’s a growth industry.”
As for SpaceX founder Musk, Brown said what he has done is brought a competitive factor to space.
“Why does that benefit us? Because now the President, the National Space Council, is asking NASA and others who are in charge of these programs to bring a value. Shows us and demonstrate how you’re taking cost down,” explained Brown.
“That’s where we come in. Because we can show private enterprise and the way we do things and the efficiencies – that’s how we operate,” he said.
In terms of focusing on LEO, he said this is where the greatest opportunities are provided. Smaller satellites usually last anywhere from five to seven years and, when they lose their power and burn up, they need to continually be replenished.
“The key to that is, once you start launching in your launch facility, they keep coming back to you to re-launch and use your facility,” Brown said.
With the proposed operation being specific to LEO, he said the program can focus on the services these satellites provide, such as global Internet access, weather monitoring and voice and data communications.
Another example cited by Brown is autonomous cars which, in order to be truly operational, requires them being able to talk to one another going down the road.
“They can’t do that right now, unless you have a communications system in place for them to talk to one another. So GM, Ford and others are talking about their own system, upwards of 7,000 to 12,000 satellites to do that,” he noted.
Brown said there are a number of investors who see the benefits of this program and are looking at it as the next industry to finance.
“We are well-positioned for polar orbit. That’s all we’re going to do is polar orbit,” he said, adding that the DoD and various companies like hearing this.
“Because they know now that we have a focus for the spaceport that no one else is offering, because everybody wants to do everything,” Brown commented.
“I don’t want to say we can do everything. I want to be so specific that they say, ‘you’ve matched our business needs with a value. Let’s sign on the dotted line,’” he expressed.
“Tom Engler of NASA’s cape Canaveral wants to sign an agreement with us to have NASA come up at our space symposium and actually engage with companies on a joint venture with NASA, specific to polar orbit launches. Because they see the value in this,” Brown also shared.
He was referencing the second annual MAMA symposium, which will be held in Traverse City Sept. 9-10.
“As soon as I said we’re not doing equatorial orbit, he knew he didn’t have to compete against us. So now he can be a part of it. I can tell you, there’s other companies thinking the same way,” Brown said.
“Getting into the polar orbit from where we’re located here, from the 45th parallel north, actually takes less fuel and gets you into orbit quicker,” he pointed out, as opposed to launching from a larger, existing facility.
Brown explained that, once a site is selected, Phase I entails such actions as engaging the FAA and architects, beginning community outreach, planning business case development and more.
He said this process has already been delayed by three months. “So I like to say we’re going to work at the speed of business, not at the call of bureaucracy.”
Brown said the goal was to have Phase I completed by June. “The consultants have told me, if we have it in place by May 1, they will double up their staff so that we still meet the June deadline for Phase I. I do not want to back off.”
He added that the hope would be to start Phase II in July.
“If we don’t go after this, we’re letting a trillion-dollar industry go to somebody else; or part of it. We won’t get it all but I want a part of that. And I want my Michigan neighbors to stay Michigan neighbors,” Brown remarked.
He said too many residents have had to move due to lack of opportunity, or jobs being created elsewhere. “I want that to stop. I want them to start coming back. I want companies that are here to be rewarded with students coming in, being trained and having a larger pool of applicants to pull from.”
Brown took questions following his presentation, and he was addressed by OWAA member and Oscoda Township Supervisor Aaron Weed.
He asked Brown what the hurdles are regarding the area of Oscoda, as far as operations and infrastructure.
Aside from the FAA conducting a risk assessment considering the number of homes, population in the area and so on, Brown said it is likely that an industrial center will have to be built. Housing will also be needed for about 1,000 families, as well as other infrastructure build-up.
“I will let you know that we have been engaging with developers over the last eight months to get housing taken care of up here – with or without the space program – we want more housing,” Weed said. “So, knowing this right here, creates an additional amount of incentive.”
Weed also asked if Brown thinks there is enough land area to accommodate this.
According to Brown, organizers will be looking at about 650 square acres, and he believes there is enough national forest land in Oscoda to meet the demand.
If things don’t go as hoped with support from the state, he said plan B would involve approaching an individual community and determining if they want to make the investment. Phase I, for example, may cost about $700,000.
OWAA member Dave Dailey asked what the various municipalities in the area can do to help with this goal.
As a representative for Greenbush Township, he said the community is ready to sign a resolution of support for the project, as are the commissioners in Alcona County.
He asked if letters should also be sent to the governor, which Brown said can be done.
Dailey encouraged the group to get surrounding communities, senators and others behind the idea as soon as possible, even if that requires trips to Lansing and Washington, D.C.
“We’re only talking about $2 million to get started,” he said.
Brown explained that the reason for the $2 million figure is because there are six sites which want to do a launch facility, and three for the command center. There is a cost for sending site survey employees to all of these locations.
Oscoda Township Superintendent Dave Schaeffer invited Brown to speak with the board of trustees, saying they can help figure out how to take the competition out of the equation.
“We have resources to be able to help you, we just have to do it in a way that we don’t have to then go down to the state. You tell us what you want, and we can help facilitate and help make that happen,” Schaeffer said. “And if you come talk to the township board and you talk about this, I think it’s a home run.”
Brown said he would be more than happy to bring representatives of some of the potential investment groups to the community. “They’re even willing, after Phase I, to invest in everything after that.”
“On my side of things, this has had my support since I first heard about this last year,” said Weed.
“All the feedback I’ve received from the county has been positive,” added OWAA member and Iosco County Commissioner Rob Huebel.
When one of the meeting attendees asked who has final say on the decision, Brown said the FAA is probably going to do only two more, and that this is the organization which will make the ultimate determination on the spaceport licenses.
He said he will be meeting with the FAA in the second week of May, and that he has to present them with a site, or what MLI is engaged in.
“We have a company that is providing a remediation for PFAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances] out of the water,” Brown continued. “We’re actually going to eliminate that out of the water where we are.”
He said there are still some things which need to be worked out but, right now, it’s at a 55 percent rate of elimination on the first process.
“And it’s basically mobile so it can go anywhere, you just run the water through,” he explained.
“The state standard is 12 parts per trillion,” Weed advised.
“We can take it down to that. I just want to make sure that the process itself can meet the requirements,” Brown said.
“It’s smart to do it, because it’s got the best thing to offer,” Kalitta said of the MLI program. “That’s what it’s going to be are the people you’re going to try to sell it to – what have you done so far, what have you got and how can you do it.”
Following the presentation, OWAA members requested that OWA Manager Gary Kellan prepare a resolution to be adopted by the various municipalities in the area, encouraging the state to support the MLI project in Oscoda.
For more information about MAMA and MLI, visit www.michman.org.