By Randy Billings,
Published by Press Herald, 2 February 2022
Proponents say establishing the Maine Space Port Corp. as a quasi-state agency would maximize investments into aerospace technology from federal sources and private venture capitalists.
Maine soon could get a boost in a new and increasingly competitive space race.
One year after a Brunswick company became the first to launch a commercial rocket here, advocates are urging lawmakers to create a new entity that would help Maine firms capitalize on technology to make it easier and more affordable to send small satellites into orbit.
A bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, would create the Maine Space Port Corp. The public/private partnership would be charged with building launch sites, data networks and the support operations for sending small satellites into space, and for developing new products based on the data collected. Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion, is one of seven co-sponsors.
Proponents said the bill could help bring in new revenue to the state, provide future employment opportunities in the technology sector and allow Maine to compete against other communities in the United States and Canada. Maine is ideally situated for launching small satellites into polar orbit, supporters said, because it has former military bases that could become launch sites. Maine also is rural, making it easier to avoid launching over populated areas. Furthermore, it takes less fuel to reach orbit from Maine, and there are larger launch windows here during the summer.
Terry Shehata, executive director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium, a NASA-funded nonprofit that among other things encourages more students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, said establishing a quasi-state agency now would allow Maine to get ahead of efforts that are under way in other states and in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“We’re trying to be a step ahead of some of our competitors, not only in Canada but also in Alaska,” which already has a spaceport, Shehata told lawmakers Tuesday. “We want to do this as quickly as possible so we can enter the marketplace.”
Shehata said the consortium is planning to release a strategic plan soon that will include an updated economic impact statement. But he said a 2020 analysis estimated that the aerospace industry could increase Maine’s gross domestic product by $1 billion to $1.5 billion annually by 2030.
The Maine Space Port Corp., if approved, would be charged with establishing the Maine Space Complex, which would oversee three businesses: The Maine Space Data and Advanced Analytics Center of Excellence, a state-of-the-art computer center; the Maine New Space Innovation Hub, a shared space for vehicle manufacturing and ground control for satellite operations; and the Maine Launch Site and Services for launching nanosatellites into polar orbit.
FORMER BASES ARE A KEY
Shehata said one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the private sector to advance in Maine is the cost of infrastructure. He said venture capitalists are not interested in paying for the bricks-and-mortar projects needed to support the industry. That’s why he’s looking to partner with the state, which not only has access to existing facilities, like the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone and the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, but also to federal grants to make improvements.
The new corporation also will have the authority to issue bonds. It also could help private companies address regulatory and community hurdles, he said.
Blushift, an aerospace company in Brunswick, made history when it launched a rocket at Loring last January. The Stardust 1.0 was a 20 feet tall and 14 inches in diameter. Initial data showed it reached an altitude of nearly 5,000 feet before parachuting safely back to Earth. The company became the first to launch a commercial rocket in Maine and the first to launch a commercial rocket using biofuels.
The company has expressed interest in launching rockets from an island off Jonesport, but town officials in December requested more time to evaluate the proposal, the Bangor Daily News reported.
The Maine Space Port Corporation would be overseen by a 15-member board of directors. Six members would be ex officio, representing the state Economic and Community Development office, the Maine Technology Institute, the University of Maine System, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority in Brunswick and the Loring Development Authority of Maine.
The other nine members would be appointed by the governor and subject to Senate confirmation. They would represent a local aerospace business with less than 25 employees and one with more than 25 employees; a resident from each of Aroostook, Cumberland and Washington counties; a local nonprofit research organization that uses satellite data; an elementary or secondary school; business investors and a representative of a business that is involved in innovation and research and development in satellite development and manufacturing, data and analytics or launch services.
ROUX, UMAINE STUDENTS INVOLVED
Dan Koloski, director of professional studies at Northeastern University’s Roux Institute in Portland, said students at both the institute and within the University of Maine System already are working closely with the Maine Space Grant Consortium. Roux students last year explored using satellite data for forestry, aquaculture and weather related industries. He believes that investing in aerospace will give those students a chance to stay and work in Maine.
“We would encourage the state to invest heavily in this area,” he said.
Other proponents included the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Associated General Contractors of Maine and the Maine Composites Alliance.
While the Legislature’s Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee didn’t hear any opposition to the proposal, several Republican members, including Rep. Sue Bernard of Caribou, questioned the need for government involvement, especially if the private sector was leading the effort on innovation.
“I’m worried about an overarching heaviness on top of what can happen when private enterprise goes forward and does such wonderful work,” she said.
But Emily Dwinnells, who is the project director for the Maine Space Complex strategic planning process, said state involvement would allow aerospace companies to maximize all funding that’s available, including funding included in the new federal infrastructure funding bill. She also said Maine was well-positioned to be a leader in commercial rocket launches.
“There’s nothing like this on the East Coast,” she said.
The Legislature’s IDEA Committee will hold a work session in the coming weeks before sending a recommendation to the full Legislature.
See: Original Article