Image: Detroit Free Press
By Eric D. Lawrence
Detroit Free Press – 8 August 2020
Mary Little had just finished making a batch of thimbleberry jam, and she had a few things to say about a proposed vertical rocket launch site in the wilds of the Upper Peninsula.
“Anything that close to Lake Superior is concerning. It should be concerning to everybody, and fuels and heat and water usage … anybody who cares about this lake should be concerned about this,” said Little, 69, who moved to the area from downstate in 1976.
Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, is a precious resource, and she’s worried about what will happen if rockets start blasting off into space within miles of her house, which has a view of the lake and the cliffs nearby.
She’s heard about the “jobs, jobs, jobs” this project could bring to an area known more for its tourism and outdoor living than high-tech industry. And Little is concerned about what will happen to her neighborhood and everything that makes it unique.
Little, who goes by “Betsy,” is not alone in her reaction, with a sharp divide between those opposed and those in favor in the Upper Peninsula and elsewhere. Opposition to the selection of the site near the historic Granot Loma resort, a landmark that may be the largest log cabin in the world, has generated more than 20,000 signatures on a change.org petition to “stop the destruction of our forests.” Less than two weeks earlier, the project had been announced with great fanfare in Marquette.
The person who started the petition, reacting to a Free Press story referencing the well-known Pure Michigan ad campaign in describing a vision of rockets blasting off over Lake Superior, trashed the proposal.
“I can name hundreds of things that are more ‘Pure Michigan’ than that. Not polluting the clean, fresh waters of Lake Superior for a start. Also, not destroying acres of land that, contrary to popular belief, do have people living there,” according to the posting by Lauren Blosser.
That anti-launch site petition has now been answered by a group supporting the effort with its own petition to “say ‘YES!’ to the U.P. spaceport,” which had generated more than 1,600 signatures as of Saturday.
“We are tired of having economic opportunities shut down as they have so many times in the U.P. without any solutions to create sustainable economic environments for families to stay in our beautiful home,” according to the second petition.
Jake Putala, a Northern Michigan University student who’s helping lead the pro-spaceport campaign, said he doesn’t question the motives of the people who are opposed to the project even though many are from outside the area, but he said the region needs an economic boost, especially one that could bring high-paying jobs —from hundreds to a couple of thousand.
“I want to work here. I want to live here, and I want to raise a family here. In order to do that there has to be economic opportunity,” said Putala, who joked that he’s from Pelkie, which is in the suburbs of Baraga.
He estimated that a third of the 30 or so graduates in his high school class opted to leave the area because of limited career choices, something that’s “sad to see.” Putala, who’s studying public administration and criminal justice at the university in Marquette, said the UP is a special place to live, but it’s got challenges.
“The UP was hit incredibly hard during the recession back in 2008, and we’re still slowly recovering from that. A lot of areas in the UP, the primary industry is tourism,” which is fine, but the area needs to diversify its economy, he said.
The pitch for the project has in large part been about jobs and economic development, not just in the Marquette area but across the state. The man spearheading the effort, Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, said the project could generate 40,000 direct and spin-off jobs in an industry now highlighted by the names of companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Orbit. The site near Marquette would host the vertical launch site, while a horizontal launch site would be located at the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, a former Air Force base in the Lower Peninsula. The location of a command and control center is expected to be announced later this year.
The state of Michigan contributed $2 million for a feasibility study, and Brown said he expects to secure as much as $1.2 billion in private equity money for the project by the end of the year.
Brown said Michigan makes perfect sense to join the handful of states with active space launch sites because of its ties to the auto industry, which, he said, need more satellites in orbit to provide constant communications for the self-driving vehicles of the future.
State Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, is one of a number of voices asking for patience, a theme highlighted in a story in the local newspaper, The Mining Journal, before people make up their minds. Cambensy told the Free Press it’s too early to reject this kind of a project. It would be years before completion and would require many reviews, and most key, approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“I think as Yoopers and people that live in the Upper Peninsula we’re very protective of our environment, but I have to say I was taken aback by all the protesting of the opportunity” to take advantage of this. Traditional industries like timber and mining are not what they were, she noted.
“We’re always looking for an opportunity to bring good-paying, high-quality jobs to the area, so this seemed perfect. I think a lot of people are making assumptions,” she said. “This is going to be nothing like Cape Canaveral. The disruption in terms of noise and nuisance is going to be minimal.”
Brown has said there could be a few dozen launches at the site near Marquette, with as many as 300 in Oscoda, each year. A fact sheet on the effort said noise from vertical launches would be audible, but “temporary, infrequent, and only loud enough to result in minor impacts like disruption of conversations.”
The fact sheet put the range for some aerospace engineering positions from about $98,000 to almost $104,000 and touted economic revenue spikes tied to launches in Brevard County, Florida, home of Cape Canaveral.
The location on the shores of the lake, however, is the real problem, according to Carl Lindquist, executive director of the Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Conservancy.
“We couldn’t imagine a worse location. This is a sensitive coastal area. It’s virtual wilderness so there’s a whole host of potential environmental impacts,” Lindquist said, mentioning the effect on water and air quality, threatened and endangered species as well as migratory patterns for animals, including moose. “It’s hard to imagine such an operation in such a sensitive area. … If it were to be a shopping mall development there it would be incredible, irreversible environmental damage.”
But the biggest impact would be on the lake itself, the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area and the headwaters of the Great Lakes, with tens of millions of people living downstream, Lindquist said. He noted the consequences if something were to fall into the lake with its tremendous depth of more than 1,300 feet.
Lindquist, who noted the danger of forest fires as well, said his organization does support sustainable economic development but that would not happen in the specific location along the lake. Sawyer International Airport, the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, which is south of Marquette, had been considered for the site but rejected because flights would be over more populated areas.
“This sudden switch accounts for a lot of the local outrage,” Lindquist said, noting that although there would be some environmental concerns with launches at the airport, many locals believe it’s a much better option.
Mirko Gamba, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, said concerns about the project should not be dismissed.
“The issue of environmental impact is very, very important and noise is part of that. I think the people are right in raising these questions, and we need to address it in a formal process,” he said, noting that the FAA would make that happen.
When weighing the impact, though, Gamba said he’d focus on three areas. The local environmental impact, including from propellants, which could include a mixture of liquid oxygen and a fuel like kerosene or liquid hydrogen (that would be cleaner than kerosene for instance but isn’t as commonly used in these types of operations) would be one area. The customers who use the site and the payloads they’d bring would be another.
But Gamba said the launch itself and the area the rockets would travel over are the main areas of impacts he envisions from this type of site. The risk to people and property in the event of a launch failure would need to be weighed. You need to determine where things would fall, he said.
And of course the people on the other side of the lake, those who live in Canada, would want to weigh in.
Whether the site is appropriate, it’s not clear, and Gamba said it’s not for him to say. If the state really wants this, it should consider it, he said.
Gamba noted, however, that even if a launch site never materializes, Michigan already has a vibrant aerospace industry through its many suppliers, in large part because of connections to the automotive industry, and one that can continue to grow.
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.
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