By Hannah Laclaire,
Published by Portland Press Herald, 24 April, 2022
The state hopes a new law creating the Maine Space Port Corp. is the first step toward achieving that goal.
Maine took a small but crucial step last week toward a starry-eyed vision to become a leading national hub for the space industry with a new law aimed at building a multimillion-dollar spaceport.
Supporters say such a project could create thousands of jobs and contribute as much as a billion dollars annually to the economy, an impact that would rival lobster fishing.
The state officially launched this effort to boost its budding space economy on Monday, when Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a bill to create the Maine Space Port Corp., a public-private partnership charged with building launch sites, data networks and support operations for sending small satellites into space, as well as for developing new products based on the data collected.
Governed by a 17-member board, the corporation would accomplish its work through the formation of Maine Space Complex, which likely would be built at Brunswick Landing within the next 10 years. It would house a satellite launch and a manufacturing facility for equipment to support it, intended to bolster the 85 space-related businesses operating in the state and attract as many new companies here.
The facility and data collected by the satellites would also be available to Maine students, from kindergarten to graduate programs, in hopes of developing an interest in aerospace from a young age and providing opportunities for those who choose to study the field to stay in state or come here from away – all potential future employees at the businesses that the facility hopes to attract.
But space analysts say that spaceports can be a gamble in a field that, though growing rapidly, is still getting off the ground and is highly competitive. Supporters, however, point out that Maine is uniquely suited for launching satellites into polar orbit because of its geographic coordinates, rural landscape, low population density and existing industry and infrastructure. There are only two other such polar launch sites operating in the country, in California and Alaska.
The spaceport would oversee three entities: 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, education and ground control for satellite operations; and the Maine Launch Site and Services for launching nanosatellites into polar orbit.
Maine’s spaceport would be the first in the Northeast – the closest is one planned for Nova Scotia – and the only one in the country to offer all three components (launch, data analysis and manufacturing/education), according to Terry Shehata, director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium. The consortium is a NASA-funded nonprofit that, among other things, encourages more students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and is leading the effort to create the spaceport complex in Maine.
“The other spaceports focus primarily on launch services which limit the participation of students, researchers, businesses, state and local governments, and communities, revenue generation and economic impact,” he said. “In contrast, the Maine Space Complex provides for three separate but integrated business units … that would maximize Maine’s involvement in the three segments of the new space economy value chain and the underlying infrastructure needed to support these segments.”
Offering more than just launches will be crucial for the spaceport’s success, according to Phil Smith, senior analyst with Bryce Tech, an analytics and engineering consulting firm that specializes in the space industry.
There were only about 146 launches into orbit globally in 2021, Smith said. That was a historic high, but it’s not a huge number. While industry analysts expect an increase, they don’t think it will balloon to hundreds and hundreds per year like some of the more ambitious startups are projecting, Smith said. There are over 240 individual rocket concepts in development or proposed worldwide, and the majority of those will not be successful, he added.
With fewer than 150 launches per year and 13 Federal Aviation Authority-licensed spaceports in the United States alone, the competition is stiff.
“If it has diverse activity, it will be better situated to be sustainable than if it was just doing launches,” Smith said. “It’s a very competitive field out there.”
THE THREE SEGMENTS
The data and analytics center would be a cloud-based digital platform to manage, store and analyze satellite data, accessible from several locations like the Roux Institute, the University of Maine and the Governor’s Office, according to a strategic plan from the Maine Space Grant Consortium.
The new space innovation hub, tapped for Brunswick Landing, the site of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, is envisioned as a center for new business incubation and acceleration, hardware and materials development, and rocket manufacturing and testing. The existing Brunswick Executive Airport will allow for horizontal launches, meaning off of an airplane. Vertical launches would have to happen elsewhere.
The facility, which would be open for use to businesses, would have specialized equipment for research and development, as well as classrooms for in-person and remote education for both K-12 and higher education students. The hub would have a second, smaller location at Loring Commerce Center.
Shehata said he hopes to flesh out the configuration of the hub this year, but that it could comprise one or multiple buildings, depending on the need for manufacturing or other facilities.
The vertical launch site will be the trickiest of the three components to get up and running. A site hasn’t yet been identified, though Shehata said it would need to be coastal and that the corporation will start working with towns as soon as possible.
The launch site would serve the commercial, academic/scientific and government sectors and also offer workforce training opportunities. It’s this site, according to the consortium’s strategic plan, that will “leverage Maine’s current rocketry, data, and geospatial analytics capabilities to become a more visible national and international aerospace industry destination.”
SMALL SATELLITES, BIG GROWTH
The global space economy currently generates about $350 billion, but financial services company Morgan Stanley estimates that could increase to more than $1 trillion by 2040, about the size of the U.S. automotive industry.
About $270 billion of that $350 billion is in satellites.
Space has historically been accessible only to a select few aerospace and defense contractors working with enormous government funding, Shehata said, but within the last 20 or so years, that has begun to shift.
Technological advancements have reduced the size and cost of spacecraft development, opening the door for smaller companies like Maine-based bluShift Aerospace and VALT Enterprises.
This evolution also unlocked the value of creating smaller satellites, or nanosatellites, which can be launched in smaller vehicles, further reducing the cost, Shehata said.
Now, the commercial sector launches more satellites than the government.
A lot of small satellites can be packed into a large rocket. While there were just 146 launches last year, Smith, the space analyst, said there were over 1,800 satellites.
These satellites offer opportunities for advancements in agricultural, marine and forestry monitoring, communications, Earth observation, community planning, land-use monitoring and natural resource management, among others.
Currently valued at about $4 billion, the nanosatellite market is expected to grow to $25 billion by 2030. Maine is hoping to capitalize on that growth and ultimately capture about 10 percent of the small-satellite market.
There’s already a burgeoning aerospace industry in the state, with dozens of businesses either directly or indirectly linked to the field.
There’s bluShift Aerospace, a Brunswick Landing-based company developing biofuel-powered rockets. VALT Enterprises, based in Old Orchard Beach with a second location in Presque Isle, is a defense and space launch company leveraging a technology known as hypersonic air-breathing propulsion to reduce the weight, size and cost for nanosatellites to get to space. Fiber Materials in Biddeford designs and manufactures composite materials that perform in extreme environments like space. Greisen Aerospace, also in Brunswick Landing, designs and manufactures satellite ground support equipment, including specialized lifting hardware used by the aerospace and defense industries.
These companies, among others, all work directly within the industry, but there are dozens of machining, engineering, telecommunication and manufacturing businesses that have a more peripheral but still important role in the supply chain, Shehata said.
Together, the 85 businesses employ about 5,000 workers. The consortium believes that investing in the space complex could nearly double that figure.
An economic impact study by the University of Southern Maine, commissioned by the consortium, found that a new space economy in Maine could contribute between $550 million and $1.1 billion per year to the state GDP by 2042 and create between 2,800 and 5,500 high-paying jobs.
Smith said spaceports do generate jobs and can carry significant economic impact, but said the projected figures are likely optimistic.
The complex won’t be cheap – the consortium estimates it could cost anywhere between $50 million and $250 million in initial renovations and construction, but it wouldn’t be on the state’s dime.
Shehata said funding could come from sources like NASA, federal economic recovery grants, Maine Technology Institute, bonds and more.
Maine may not seem like the obvious base for explorations of the final frontier, but many argue that the state is uniquely suited for just that.
The state’s geographic location is ideally situated for launching small satellites into polar orbit, Shehata said. Its longitude and latitude offer direct and near-polar orbit access for full Earth coverage as the Earth rotates. There’s little risk of the rocket hitting anything until about the Dominican Republic, at which point the rocket would either be in space or in the ocean.
It also has former military bases that could become launch sites (either vertically from the ground or horizontally from an airplane) and house the other branches of the complex. Plus, Maine is rural, making it easier to avoid launching in overpopulated areas.
BluShift Aerospace, the biofuel-powered rocket developer, has experienced rapid growth within the last few years alone. The team has more than doubled since 2019, founder Sascha Deri said, and he only plans for the company to grow.
Last year, the company became the first to launch a commercial rocket in Maine and the first to launch a commercial rocket using biofuels.
Deri doesn’t intend for bluShift to use whatever launch site springs up as part of the complex – it’s already in the process of planning its own private launch – but he agreed that attracting more aerospace businesses to Maine can only be a good thing.
“I think as an industry, whatever we can do to welcome this many-billion dollar industry into our state, the better,” he said.
“These are high-tech jobs, they’re fun, they’re cool,” Deri said, and they’ll ultimately help attract workers and keep young people in Maine. Scientists and rocket enthusiasts are tired of trekking out to the desert for launches, he added, so industry members across the country are excited about the idea of coming to Maine.
“It’s the right thing for Maine,” he said, but as a business owner, he’s “not super thrilled with making it easier for competition to come.”
Elise McGill, co-founder and executive vice president of VALT Enterprises, is particularly excited about the education component.
Good student and workforce training programs will help advance the industry and “give birth to the very companies” they’ll one day be working with, she said.
“Data is the new gold rush,” McGill said, and data from these small satellites can help collect information that industries across the board can use to help make decisions.
In order to advance the technology, though, the workforce needs to be developed.
“The number one priority should be computer science education standards,” she said.
Students at both the Roux Institute and within the University of Maine System are already working closely with the Maine Space Grant Consortium. Roux students last year explored using satellite data for forestry, aquaculture and weather-related industries.
Ali Abedi, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Maine, said investing in aerospace will help attract and retain students.
“The challenge we have in Maine is we have a lot of jobs in the market and not enough people,” he said, “unless we take this idea and grow it and go forward with something exciting.”
The university is already making strides in space research, he said.
The school’s Wireless Sensing Laboratory and the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation recently built MESAT1, Maine’s first small satellite, which will be launched this summer. This initiative will allow all Maine’s pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students and teachers access space data for education and research, almost like a pilot program for what the education center could do.
“These are students who finish the program at the university,” he said, “so hopefully we’ll have a workforce ready” when the infrastructure is.
THE RIGHT SITE
With Brunswick Landing tapped as the New Space Innovation Hub, it may one day be like the Houston of NASA, said Kristine Logan, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority. The authority oversees the redevelopment efforts at the former base.
It’s the perfect fit and ties in perfectly with the group’s reuse master plan, she said.
“Maine has been great about supporting its legacy industries, but when we looked at the redevelopment, we realized there’s room for more,” Logan said. Aviation and aerospace have been a target sector for the landing, which is home to Brunswick Executive Airport, since the beginning.
While there aren’t existing buildings available for the complex, Logan said there is space to house its initial phases – possibly at TechPlace, a start-up incubator – and there is ample land to build a new facility.
There are already multiple aerospace-related businesses on the landing, including bluShift, and Logan said a complex will only serve to attract more.
There will be some hurdles along the way, primarily housing, Logan noted.
Thousands of additional jobs are promising, but Maine already has a housing crisis.
While the landing has hundreds of units already planned, they’re selling before they’re completed. It’s all going to have to happen simultaneously, she said.
The law will likely be effective sometime in mid-July, Shehata said. In the meantime, he’s hoping to get together a list of candidates for the board and start drafting the bylaws.
Some board members have already been determined: the commissioner of Economic and Community Development, the president of Maine Technology Institute, the executive directors of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority and Loring Development Authority of Maine, and the chancellor and president of the University of Maine and the Maine Community College System. Others will include representatives from several Maine counties, aerospace businesses, business investors, elementary or secondary schools, and entities that use data from or are involved with developing satellites.
Shehata plans to start working with the U.S. Economic Development Administration and Maine Technology Institute to secure funding for business recruitment and workforce development.
Once the board gets established, they’ll be able to start planning in earnest.
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