OSCODA – When it was first proposed, the idea of a space port had many Oscoda residents and officials excited.
In April of 2019, representatives from the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) visited the Oscoda Wurtsmith Airport on a speculative trip to determine whether it was suitable as a horizontal launch site.
The reasoning was Wurtsmith’s exceptionally long runway and low population, which could support the large aircraft and FAA regulations surrounding space-related requirements.
In February 2020, MAMA announced Wurtsmith as the site for horizontal launches to the excitement of the community.
That same month, representatives held a community meeting in Lansing’s state capitol building, fielding questions and making a presentation to the public. Oscoda Wurtsmith Airport Authority (OWAA) representative Dave Dailey made stood alongside other regional figures like township supervisor at the time Aaron Weed, State Representative Sue Allor and Gavin Brown of MAMA.
The space port was this big piece of news that had lofty goals, such as starting operations by the year 2022, being completely green and carbon neutral and getting FAA approval in two years.
Fast forward to January of 2022, Gavin Brown tells OWAA and the Township of Oscoda that licensing is moving “full speed ahead,” telling them to expect a liquid oxygen facility.
Brown said other facilities aren’t economically feasible because they just thought, ‘if we build it and get the license they will come.’ “I’m not thinking that way. I’m thinking, how do we bring value? Value that, to the customer, would be something like a liquid oxygen facility, so we don’t have to truck it in and it’s going to be available.”
After that, it was radio silence.
In April, Ann Richards, supervisor of Oscoda Township and Kevin Boyat, chairman of OWAA, signed a letter asking Brown to respond in 45 days to their request for information.
- A business plan and inclusion in to future inclusion in the plan.
- Additional information about the environmental impacts and infrastructure requirements for liquid oxygen facilities and hypersonic testing.
- Oscoda representation during FAA and MAMA meetings regarding spaceport testing.
- OWA representation during MAMA/FAA OWA tenant discussion.
- The status of economic and environmental impact studies for all space port related activities.
- Operating agreements provided by MAMA’s lawyers.
MAMA never replied, so the township and OWA had nothing to go on.
Lack of communication has been the norm ever since, with rumors of a representative from Space-X visiting the airport without any prior notification. Staff still don’t know whether it was true or not and what the purpose of the visit was.
Issues with a space program in Michigan aren’t localized to Oscoda.
Coincidentally in April, The New Yorker published an article in relation to MAMA, discussing its involvement in the Upper Peninsula, planning to set up a vertical launch site in Marquette.
The article mentions local push back at a site along Lake Superior.
In OWAA’s August meeting, Dailey announced he is going to MAMA’s North American Space Summit (NASS) on his own. This was in spite of all other ties in Oscoda breaking off with MAMA as interest wanes.
“Maybe I’m a bit more of a bulldog,” he said.
Dailey was always at the forefront of bringing in a space program to Oscoda.
His belief is other areas of the state are being more proactive with MAMA and are getting higher priority over Wurtsmith.
One of his arguments is the fact that the Chippewa County Airport, based on the old Kincheloe Air base, are moving forward with their plans to set up a grounds station, the only thing apparently moving out of the Michigan Launch Initiative (MLI) so far.
Chris Olsen of the Chippewa County Economic Development Committee, (EDC) said the command center came out of a partnership between them and MAMA, but they also are working with a private partner, Red Wire Space, to get things going. They are also working with Lake Superior State University to set up an education program, training locally for any space-related needs.
“We have a business case that would support it because of our location above 45th,” said Olsen. “We have diversified from the beginning in the event of something not happening with the MLI.”
Even if things with MAMA fall through for them, their partnership with a private company means they will still have something space-related in the area.
The EDC directly controls the airport, one of only two unique arrangements in the State. Their role as both Air Authority and EDC allows them to take a more active role in bringing in business.
One thing to keep in mind about OWAA is their role isn’t to bring in business, but to keep their door front swept, so businesses will naturally want to flock to the airport.
“It’s costly to go (to NASS) because they want you to show up with a booth, so we shared a cost with the township,” said OWA Administrative Assistant Brenda Mcneil. “We have everything here to offer, we’re here, we’re open.”
That’s pretty much all they can do. Airport Authorities don’t have the budget for paying companies to come in and set up shop, they’re mainly concerned with keeping the runway maintained and providing utilities for businesses to voluntarily move in. They are limited to the role of municipality.
Todd Dickerson of Oscoda’s EDC has no plans to attending the NASS, so there’s really nothing besides Dailey still showing interest in the MLI.
Michael Dudzik is President of the IQM Research Institute which published “Michigan Space Launch Report.” The report isn’t very favorable to Michigan as a space launch site.
Dudzik holds many titles, including Brigadier General for the Air Force, VP of Science and Technology at Lockheed Martin and serves on the advisory boards at the University of Michigan and the University of Central Florida.
While Michigan’s Great Lakes are seen as a potential asset for launches, they would still have to contend with land-based issues, he says.
One big stopper in the works is the fact that launches at Michigan’s latitudes would limit it to polar orbits, orbits that run North to South.
Polar Orbits aren’t in high demand in the first place, and in the case of a Michigan launch, they would immediately go over Canada, over the North Pole and then Russia.
“There’s a reason why there are very few launches over other countries,” he said. “If we had a rocket failure in Great Lakes, then you got to contend with pollution. None of these things are green, the idea of a green rocket and green satellite aren’t possible.”
Liquid oxygen rockets aren’t fueled by pure oxygen. They sometimes require additives like nitric acid and nitrogen tetroxide, highly toxic chemicals. That’s not to mention the debris coming out of failed launches, which aren’t uncommon.
Another challenge facing horizontal launch is the fact they are limited in payload size and cost. Dudzik likens it to the idea of buying in bulk.
“In today’s commercial world, it’s all about price to orbit. Back in the day, the price of getting into orbit was something like $30,000 per kilogram. It’s dropped down to $1,500 per kilogram. Commercial satellites are migrating to a Space-X model with reusable boosters. Bifurcation is occurring in the space launch business where they’re putting 60 satellites in a rocket at a time.”
Contrast that to horizontal launch, where payloads are smaller, but they can get something in space quicker. The cost needs to be higher to make the business viable.
“You’re looking at 40 launches total per year,” said Dudzik.
It’s a capability the federal government may want, but it has to be subsidized or else it won’t get off the ground.
Despite peeking at Oz behind the curtain, OWAA Airport Manager James Downes said he has something that might bring in more jobs anyway.
OWAA’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) involves replacing lights, expanding roadways, taxiway repair and expansion.
Two big airport plans are the extension of Flight street and modifications to Taxiway E. If all goes smooth, these changes will provide more space for the construction of five additional hangars.
“Roughly every hangar is 200 jobs added to the area,” said Downes.
A little further southwest, and the airport plans on adding the AuSable ramp, opening up space for business to bring in more planes for loading/unloading.
“I could envision a distribution center like Amazon, FedEx or UPS setting up a space here.” Wurtsmith’s open spaces and minimal traffic gives them a unique advantage over other airports.
One industry Downes said they’re prioritizing is known as Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul. He and Dickerson are planning on networking with MRO companies to bring in manufacturing business who will compliment the established residents like Kalitta and USAJet.
“The potential for MRO is greater than what we give it credit for.”
He also has talks in the works with consumers to convert unused space to solar farms, providing income based on rent from the power company and supplemental power.
When it comes to space, Dudzik says Michigan’s best chance at getting involved in the industry would be better suited as a support role. Data processing, or setting up incubators like they have in Houston are the most sustainable models. Grounded, boring data processing is likely the future of commercial involvement in the space industry for the foreseeable future.
“MAMA created a lot of expectation, but unfortunately the level of hype put Michigan at a laughingstock level,” said Dudzik “For someone to claim creating 40,000 jobs is like trading cows for magic beans.”