By David Rompf,
Published by The New Yorker, 24 April 2022
Residents are up in arms about a proposed spaceport project, the first of its kind in the Midwest, which would involve launching rockets near the shoreline of Lake Superior.
One of the largest log cabins in the world can be found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on the edge of Lake Superior. The property, called Granot Loma, is twenty-six thousand square feet, and it belongs to Tom Baldwin, a sixty-five-year-old former bond and commodities trader. Baldwin made his fortune in the Treasury-bond pit at the Chicago Board of Trade, where his colleagues referred to him as the King. He was known for trading two billion dollars’ worth of bonds in a single day. Last fall, I drove to see him at Granot Loma, in Powell Township, seventeen miles north of the city of Marquette. He gave me directions over the phone, telling me to turn off the main road and onto County Road KE. “Essentially, it’s my driveway,” he said. He wasn’t exaggerating. I continued down the road for more than a mile until I reached a locked gate, which opened a few seconds after I arrived.
The cabin was built in the early nineteen-twenties by Louis G. Kaufman, a banker and businessman who helped finance the construction of the Empire State Building. He came up with the name Granot Loma by combining letters from the names of his children. Kaufman died in 1942, and more than four decades later Baldwin bought Granot Loma—and the five thousand acres on which it sits—for 4.25 million dollars. “I was looking for a large piece of property that had wilderness for outdoor recreation, and for privacy, as a retreat,” he told me. He embarked upon an extensive restoration, installing a kitchen equipped with appliances similar to those in the White House.
I had come to visit Baldwin because Granot Loma had been selected as the location for a proposed rocket-launch site, as part of a plan called the Michigan Launch Initiative. If built, the site, along with two other facilities, would constitute the first spaceport in the Midwest. The site planned for Granot Loma would host vertical launches, through which rockets carrying satellites and other payloads—not human passengers—would be sent into low-Earth orbit. The second facility is a horizontal-launch site at the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, about two hundred miles north of Detroit, where aircraft carrying satellites would take off from runways. Operations for both sites would be supported by the third facility, a command-and-control center, which would be situated in the Upper Peninsula, in Chippewa County, east of Marquette.
The spaceport plan is the brainchild of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA), a trade association founded in 2007. MAMA estimates that the command-and-control center will be operational by 2023, and that all three sites of the spaceport will be up and running by 2026. Their initiative has been polarizing: some locals believe that the spaceport will benefit the economy and attract more talent to the state, while others, particularly those who live close to Granot Loma, worry about the potential disruption of having rocket launches in their back yards. Many are also distressed about the potential environmental risks, given that the rockets for the vertical site would launch near the shoreline and likely fly over Lake Superior.
When I spoke with Baldwin at Granot Loma, we sat in a spacious alcove that resembled the bridge of a vessel poised for voyage. Outside the windows, the waters of the lake stretched gray and frothy to the horizon. “This is the most inhospitable location on Lake Superior,” Baldwin said. “We jut out on the peninsula, and typically we get thirty-mile-per-hour winds from the north or northwest that come right at the lodge, along with the rain and the sleet and the snow.”
Lake Superior is seemingly more ocean than lake. By surface area, it is the largest body of freshwater in the world. If you haven’t seen it up close or from an airplane—and even if you have—it can be difficult to grasp the significance of a lake so immense that it has its own weather systems. Lake Superior could accommodate the combined landmasses of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, and Maryland. Like the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it provides a wide-open, uninhabited area for launching rockets.
Baldwin said that he began communicating with MAMA in 2019. Earlier that year, the organization had received a two-million-dollar, taxpayer-funded grant from the state of Michigan, in order to conduct a series of feasibility studies for a possible spaceport. One of those studies involved vetting several potential launch-site locations throughout the state, and MAMA hired consultants who scored the sites in categories ranging from “environment” and “safety” to “business.” By the end of the process, the consultants had identified Baldwin’s land as the ideal vertical-launch spot.
Baldwin told me that MAMA is interested in acquiring half of his five thousand acres. (A spokesperson for MAMA would confirm only that the group is looking to acquire a “portion” of Baldwin’s land.) The two parties have yet to close a deal. “I could sell it to them for fifty million dollars, but I wouldn’t,” Baldwin said. “I think it’s worth a lot more to them than that. They couldn’t do it without me.” He estimated that the twenty-five hundred acres are worth at least a hundred million dollars to MAMA.
There are alternatives to selling his land outright. Baldwin could lease it to MAMA, or, he said, he could keep the land and become the operator of the launch site, although that outcome is unlikely. “I haven’t decided what role I want to play,” he said. “That will determine a lot of the financial aspects.” When I asked if he would be interested in operating the facility, he said, “Yes. I’m an entrepreneur. But my reputation is that I don’t play well with other children.” He went on, “Is it my goal to operate a spaceport? No. I vacillate. You get older. You lose energy. As intriguing as it is to me, I don’t underestimate the amount of energy it would take to do that. I also don’t have the aeronautical education that Elon Musk has. So, if Elon Musk wanted a joint venture, I would do it.” I asked him whether Musk has communicated with anyone involved with the Michigan Launch Initiative. “He’s reached out to us,” Baldwin said, before correcting himself and saying that Musk had contacted MAMA specifically. (MAMA said that it has discussed the initiative with representatives from Musk’s company, SpaceX, which did not respond to a request for comment.)
As he showed me around Granot Loma, Baldwin opened a door on the east side of the lodge, and invited me outside so that I could see where MAMA wants to blast rockets into orbit. An icy wind blew hard off the lake. “Over there,” he said, gesturing to the right of a skinny headland known as Thoneys Point, beyond his mile-long private beach. “About two thousand feet in from the shore.” (MAMA said the location of the launchpad has not yet been determined.) A few days later, Baldwin e-mailed me what looked like a satellite image of his land; a green dot indicated the approximate location for rocket launches. He asked me not to publicize it. “My main fear is from trespassers and sightseers,” he said.
On July 23, 2020, Gavin Brown, the founder and executive director of MAMA, announced that Michigan was going to become the next “space state.” Standing on the steps of the Marquette County Courthouse, he unveiled four illustrations for the proposed launch site at Granot Loma, depicting sleek but generic low-lying buildings, surrounded by grassy areas. “You are the vertical site for Michigan,” Brown told the audience. “When people say the great space race is on, they will not only say it’s the entire state of Michigan but come to the U.P.,” he said, using the acronym for the Upper Peninsula, to see where “the technology for space is taking place.” (Brown declined to sit for an interview but answered questions about the Michigan Launch Initiative via e-mail, through a spokesperson.)
There are currently thirteen spaceports in the United States that are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.). Although the most well-known location is probably in Florida, at Cape Canaveral, the sites are geographically diverse: there are spaceports in Kodiak Island, Alaska; near the Mojave Desert; and on the outskirts of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Some are licensed for horizontal launches only; others exclusively do vertical launches; only one, Spaceport America, the launch site in New Mexico, is authorized for both. Michigan is one of several states, including Alabama and Maine, that are actively pursuing plans to develop spaceports and related facilities, in hopes of creating their own space-industry equivalents to Silicon Valley.
On August 30, 2021, hundreds of satellite- and rocket-makers, venture capitalists, lawyers, and consultants gathered at a luxury resort and spa near Lake Michigan for a three-day event, sponsored by MAMA, called the North American Space Summit. “Welcome to the Space Gold Rush!” the brochure for the summit proclaimed. The conference offered sessions on subjects such as “Highways in Space,” “Cryptocurrency in the Space Economy, “More Spaceports, More Opportunities,” and various technical and financial aspects of the space industry. One of the speakers was Michelle Lucas, a former astronaut trainer for the International Space Station, and the founder of Higher Orbits, a nonprofit that uses space to get students interested in STEM. Lucas wore a midnight-blue dress covered with stars, planets, and swirling galaxies. “I like to think I’m your biggest cheerleader for Michigan space,” she told the crowd. “When I talk to my colleagues, in the industry, especially in the human-spaceflight industry, they have no idea what’s going on out here.” She added, “Spaceports in the Midwest—I am all about it!”
MAMA’s spaceport plan is not the first effort to launch rockets from the Upper Peninsula. In the mid-sixties, the University of Michigan led a project to launch small experimental rockets for meteorological research from the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, a finger of land pointing into Lake Superior about a hundred and twenty miles northwest of Marquette. Most of the rockets were only a few feet tall, and some of them were launched from buoys floating on the lake. But, in 1970, NASA provided two twenty-eight-foot rockets, called the Nike-Apache, for an on-land launch, scheduled for mid-December.
The Keweenaw Peninsula often receives more snowfall than any other area in the U.P., and that winter was no exception. After equipment delays throughout December, a blizzard brought multiple days of heavy snowfall. The first Nike-Apache finally launched, successfully, on January 29, 1971. Soon after, the rocket range was closed. Funding had dried up, and interest evaporated; the Keweenaw Peninsula was likely too remote, the weather too brutal.
The launch site at Granot Loma would be one part of the spaceport’s commercial enterprise. Businesses that use satellites, such as Amazon, pay aerospace companies a fee to transport their payloads into space, and then those aerospace companies typically pay commercial spaceports for use of their launchpads. (MAMA’s feasibility studies refer to a future “vertical-launch complex” that may contain multiple launchpads, in order to increase the number of customers that the spaceport can accommodate at a given time). One of MAMA’s primary interests—this being Michigan—is the convergence of the space and automotive industries. In speeches, Brown has said that rockets launched from the U.P. could contain satellites that support the development of autonomous cars and trucks, by providing data for G.P.S. and communications capabilities. At the space summit, he alluded to some of the initiative’s other goals, including one to improve “health and wellness capabilities” for people “across all geographic and socioeconomic regions.”
According to a MAMA feasibility study, the largest rocket taking off from its vertical-launch site could be similar in size to the Firefly Alpha, a new two-stage, small-satellite rocket that is approximately ninety-five feet, or nine stories, high. MAMA published that study on September 1, 2021—a day before the Firefly Alpha’s début orbital launch, from Vandenberg Space Force Base, on the California coast. About fifteen seconds into the flight, one of the first-stage engines unexpectedly shut down. In a dramatic YouTube video, the rocket can be seen climbing and maintaining control for about two and a half minutes, before tumbling out of its trajectory. A few seconds later, ground operators triggered a flight-termination system, which destroyed the rocket in an astonishing burst of fire and smoke over the Pacific Ocean. It becomes immediately evident, to anyone watching the Firefly Alpha fail, that a portion of Lake Superior would need to be cleared of any human presence during a rocket launch from Granot Loma.
Last year, some residents of Powell Township, a community of more than eight hundred people, formed an advisory committee to conduct their own research about MAMA’s project. They believe that about a dozen homes near Baldwin’s property would likely fall within what the F.A.A. refers to as the “debris dispersion radius,” or the area around the launch site where debris might fall if a rocket fails. (Baldwin denies this, saying that the closest person lives outside of that area.) Depending on the final location of the launchpad—which is currently undecided—and the flight path of each individual rocket, these residents may need to evacuate their homes prior to launches at Granot Loma. An even larger number of people may be affected by road and waterway closures. If a launch is delayed, people may be asked to evacuate more than once, or for a longer period of time. Common reasons for delays include technical issues and weather conditions, such as winds, which are routine in this area of the U.P. MAMA didn’t comment on the possibility of evacuations, but it said that the F.A.A. would have to review and approve any launchpad location before the initiative can move forward, and that the agency would not approve a plan that puts residents at risk.
I spoke with several people who live within a mile or so of Baldwin’s property line, as well as a few who reside farther away. Some have lived in the area for decades, and many are in their sixties or seventies, having decided long ago to spend the rest of their lives near the lake. They are undeterred by viciously cold winters, imposing snowfall, and gales that begin in the fall. “This was our dream, to retire here, live here, and die here,” Connie Hagle, a seventy-five-year-old resident of Eagles Nest Road, which is roughly parallel to the Lake Superior shoreline south of Granot Loma, said. Hagle, who retired from the assembly lines of Delphi Automotive, an auto-parts business that was spun off from G.M. in 1999, lives with her husband, Ken, a former train conductor. He is seventy-six. They are concerned about the difficulty of evacuating their home for launches. “What if we’re in a hospital bed in our living room?” Connie asked. “None of us are getting any younger. Are they going to bring an ambulance and transport us somewhere?”
Among the residents I met, Jeanne Baumann and her husband, Ray Nurmi, live closest to Granot Loma. “Our property is two hundred feet from the boundary of Baldwinland,” Baumann told me. Lake Superior is fourteen feet from their back porch. When Nurmi bought the two-acre lot, in 1987, it had only a deteriorating camp with a sagging roof. He rebuilt the home from the inside out. Baumann is seventy-three; Nurmi is seventy. “We live here with our chickens and our dog and the garden that provides a lot of our food,” Baumann said. “That’s where my energy comes from for wanting to protect what’s here—not just for me and my family and my dog and my chickens but the trees and the clean air and the water.” She volunteers on the advisory committee for Powell Township. “I have decided that every day I will be doing something about the rocket proposal,” she said. “If you just sit here, it’ll happen. If it happens, at least I will know that I did what I could to try to protect one of the few wonderful places that are still here.”
In his speech outside the Marquette Courthouse, Gavin Brown assured the audience that the spaceport plan “will utilize as little change to the terrain as possible,” adding, “We’re going to be stewards of the air, land, and water.” Similarly, Baldwin told me, “I have no interest in harming Lake Superior and the shoreline.” Although MAMA has not yet established any specific plans to protect the lake and the area surrounding Granot Loma, the organization did say that it would involve the community, including residents and environmental groups, once it begins working on the U.P. site.
Lake Superior and its surrounding lands have long been a magnet for commercial ventures. In the early twentieth century, iron-ore-processing facilities were built in the Lake Superior District (the informal name for the iron-ore belt of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota). In her book “Sustaining Lake Superior,” the environmental historian Nancy Langston describes how a single mining company dumped more than four hundred million tons of iron tailings into the lake during the twentieth century. On the Canadian and American shorelines, paper mills once used the lake as a receptacle for waste replete with pollutants. “Sediments contaminated with legacy pollutants still lurk in estuaries and river mouths, and storms churn those old contaminants back into the water,” Langston writes. “The past refuses to stay in the past.”
Grassroots activism and environmental laws have helped to protect Lake Superior from further pollution. The federal Clean Water Act, as amended in 1972, regulates quality standards for ground and surface waters in the United States, authorizing pollution-control programs, including for industrial wastes. In the same year, the U.S. and Canada ratified the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement; one of the agreement’s stated goals is to prevent harmful discharges from ships and other vessels. Carl Lindquist, the executive director of the Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Conservancy, a nonprofit agency in Marquette that is focussed on, among other causes, protecting the three Great Lakes that touch the U.P. shoreline, told me, “The agreement is a milestone document, but it still has serious loopholes,” including a lack of clear accountability and enforcement. “In short, people are still calling for consistent, effective and easy-to-understand protection measures for Lake Superior,” Lindquist said.
Nowadays, the lake is known for being stunningly clear, with underwater visibility up to a hundred feet in some places. Scientists have shown that a single drop of water can stay in the lake for a hundred and ninety-one years; this is true, as Langston points out, for contaminated water, too. Those drops travel throughout the Lake Superior watershed, which reaches into Canadian territory. Some fear that MAMA’s spaceport plan might turn the lake into a dump for rocket refuse; there are also concerns that the sheer noise from the launches could trigger wildlife migration, including a disruption of bald-eagle habitats. (MAMA said that, under an F.A.A. license, it will be required to have an environmental-mitigation strategy and claimed that noise from launches would be “temporary, infrequent, and only loud enough to result in minor impacts like disruption of conversations.”) Residents also worry that the percussion of a launch might weaken the sandstone cliffs along the lake’s shore. Jeanne Baumann and Ray Nurmi’s home is built on a portion of the sandstone that stretches up to Thoneys Point at Granot Loma. This past June, a roughly two-hundred-foot chunk of sandstone cliff at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, about fifty miles east of Marquette, spontaneously broke away and crashed into the lake; a similar collapse occurred in 2019.
While driving through the area, I saw dozens of “Protect Lake Superior” signs that included a URL for a Web site called StopTheRocket.com. The signs had been nailed to trees, planted in beaches, and staked into the gravel driveways of camps and houses; they also dotted the roadside along Lake Independence, a lake in Powell Township near the Superior shore. The signs were distributed by a nonprofit organization called Citizens for a Safe & Clean Lake Superior, which was founded in 2020 by Dennis Ferraro, a retired lawyer who lives on Eagles Nest Road. His group, part of a growing opposition to the spaceport initiative, recently put up a giant “STOPTHEROCKET.COM” billboard on U.S. Highway 41, a major thoroughfare in the U.P.
This past November, Ferraro received a letter from a law firm representing Baldwin. It accused Ferraro’s nonprofit of copyright and trademark infringement, owing to the fact that his organization’s Web site had used Granot Loma’s name and featured a link to an article with details about the property, as part of what Baldwin calls a fund-raising campaign to oppose the spaceport. The letter demanded that the reference to Granot Loma be removed and that any money from the campaign be turned over to Baldwin. “My lawyers laughed,” Ferraro told me.
Lindquist’s agency received a similar letter from Baldwin’s attorney, after referring to Granot Loma on its site in conjunction with the same so-called campaign. Here, too, Baldwin wanted the reference removed and demanded that any money raised be remitted to him. Instead of challenging Baldwin, the nonprofit complied, sending Baldwin’s lawyers a check for fourteen hundred dollars. “As a nonprofit, we simply don’t have the time or funding to be legally bullied by a millionaire,” Lindquist told me in an e-mail. “We have better things to do.”
One of MAMA’s feasibility studies, published in September, 2021, states that it is “important to engage in public engagement and awareness campaigns throughout the project.” But residents I spoke with complained about what they said was MAMA’s failure to share information, especially with those who live in Powell Township and the area around Granot Loma. “We are very discouraged that MAMA has never come to the township with any of their ideas,” Darlene Turner, the township’s supervisor, told me over Zoom. Turner was not invited to the announcement ceremony in Marquette; she learned about the launch-site selection in the newspaper. “It’s very frustrating,” she said. “We were told MAMA would come to the township in June. And then it was July. But that never happened and still hasn’t happened.” (MAMA said it never promised to meet with the township and said that it would consult “all necessary officials” during the licensing process.) When I spoke with another resident, she asked, of MAMA, “What are they afraid of?”
MAMA’s most compelling argument for building the spaceport has been an economic one. At the announcement ceremony, Brown said that a launch site in the U.P. would facilitate “a vibrant, robust space industry that will be contributing to hundreds of jobs.” Gerry Corkin, the chairman of the Marquette County Board of Commissioners, told the audience that the plan was a “home run for Marquette County.” Corkin said, “Usually, these things don’t happen in the U.P. You might get close, but you don’t ever seem to grab the brass ring on a big development.”
When I spoke with residents who were supportive of the spaceport plan, they typically cited the jobs argument. Bill Ford, a member of Powell Township’s advisory committee, who is seventy and worked for thirty years at General Motors, said that he is more receptive to the plan than his neighbors, explaining that he would like to see the Michigan Launch Initiative bring jobs to the area. “I’m generally supportive as far as the jobs and what they could offer the township,” he said, of MAMA, “if they can come up with a good package that gives our citizens a better life.”
MAMA has published more than twelve hundred pages of feasibility reports on its Web site. One report is titled “Vertical and Horizontal Business Case,” which, at four pages, is the shortest of the documents. According to the report, the capital investment to equip the facilities and infrastructure at the two launch sites is roughly two hundred and ninety million dollars across ten years, from 2023 through 2032. (According to Brown, the majority of the investment is expected to come from the private sector.) The report estimates that the sites will generate a “gross direct, indirect and induced economic impact” of a little more than thirteen billion dollars during that same period. The spaceports, it claims, could attract approximately thirty aerospace and space companies and twenty-six hundred jobs by 2032. The report also states that the Michigan Launch Initiative will have created six hundred and fifty new jobs by the end of 2023—the year that the command-and-control center is expected to commence operations. Those projections differ starkly from the information that Gavin Brown recently provided me in an e-mail; MAMA now estimates that the initiative will create six hundred and fifty jobs in total.
Another argument for building a spaceport is that it would draw space-industry talent to the region. Last October, at a café in downtown Marquette, I met with Adam Kall and Austin Morris, two twenty-five-year-old space-industry entrepreneurs. Along with Morris’s brother Troy, who is twenty-eight, they had founded a company that is developing technology to find and retrieve the debris of space missions—defunct satellites, spent rockets, items accidentally released by astronauts—that could cause catastrophic damage in a collision with spacecraft. The three men are graduates of Northern Michigan University, in Marquette. “Adam and I both have enormous three-foot-long Lego sets of the Saturn V in our offices,” Morris said. “All three of us, since we were children, were fascinated with space,” Morris told me. After graduating from N.M.U., they left the U.P. for jobs elsewhere, though they hoped to eventually return.
“We wanted to get back to the U.P., and we wanted to work in space,” Morris said. “What were the options for that? Then we heard about this thing called the Michigan Launch Initiative.” They started to think about how they could make use of a launch site near Marquette. After throwing out some ideas, they decided to try solving the problem of space debris. Their company, Kall Morris Inc., is in the early stages of making a spacecraft that would ride a rocket into orbit and locate debris; a machine-learning algorithm would enable their spacecraft to secure the debris with a robotic arm. “We’d be a rideshare payload,” Kall said. “We’re buying a seat on the plane, jumping on a rocket that is going close to the debris. We’ll have the engine that will move to where the debris is.”
Kall and the Morris brothers represent one type of worker—young, educated, space-age-savvy—that Michigan Launch Initiative proponents hope to attract to the state. As we talked, their geeky passion for all things space was infectious. I found myself thinking, Who wouldn’t have confidence in these hyper-bright individuals attacking the problem of space debris? These men would certainly benefit from a U.P. vertical-launch site. They have participated in some of MAMA’s events: Troy Morris, the director of operations for the company, spoke in support of the Michigan Launch Initiative at MAMA’s courthouse announcement, saying, “This is an exciting potential to launch from the relative back yard of assembly.” Meanwhile, Adam Kall was one of the presenters at the “Highways in Space” session at MAMA’s space summit. During our meeting, however, Kall and Austin Morris acknowledged the polarizing nature of MAMA’s project and expressed concerns with the group’s approach to communicating with the public.
“As space nerds, we want a rocket site here, but it’s actually not crucial to our mission,” Morris said. Launching from the U.P. would be convenient, he said, but “we’re going to be shipping the spacecraft to wherever the rocket is launching anyway.” He added that, speaking as a citizen of Marquette, he’s waiting for MAMA to release more details about its plans: “I think it’s up to MAMA to put out the actual truth about what the scenario is going to be in order to dispel all rumors.”
“Or to confirm the rumors,” Kall said. “I think MAMA drastically underestimated the ability of Yoopers to get worked up about something, to be passionate about something,” he said, using the nickname for residents and natives of the U.P. “We’ve seen it many times when someone discounts the U.P. as a bunch of hillbillies up here who have nothing to do.”
Last October, when I met with Dennis Ferraro, who runs the organization responsible for the “Protect Lake Superior” signs, he told me, “I don’t think MAMA has been completely forthright.” That comment turned out to be prescient. In November, Ferraro reviewed hundreds of pages of documents that he obtained through a public-information request to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the agency that administers and monitors the grant that MAMA received to fund its feasibility studies. Among the materials was a hundred-and-forty-eight-page draft report titled “Michigan Space Launch Report,” written by a nonprofit scientific organization, I.Q.M. Research Institute, and dated February, 2021. Although the document was commissioned by MAMA, its existence had not been made public, and it is clear why MAMA might not have wanted it to be seen. The report refers to investments in the Michigan spaceport as “high risk and low return.” Between 2018 and 2020, the report says, “seven of the thirteen U.S. spaceports had no revenue-producing launch activity.” (The F.A.A. told me that only five of the licensed spaceports have ever seen a launch.) And, according to I.Q.M., none of the non-government-funded spaceports—meaning commercial spaceports like the one that MAMA wants to build in Michigan—“enabled any meaningful economic growth in the new space economy.” The report concludes that the business case for vertical- and horizontal-launch sites in Michigan is “uneconomical,” and recommends that no investment be made in these facilities. Instead, I.Q.M. advises that Michigan invest in space by rebranding and accelerating space technologies and programs in the state’s economy, such as space-data analytics.
Perhaps the most striking comment in the report—and potentially the most damaging to MAMA’s efforts to promote the idea of a spaceport for Michigan—is a line from the executive summary: “the annual revenue generated from a launch cadence of one rocket launch per week in Michigan would have the same revenue impact in the State equal to the annual revenue of two additional fast-food chain restaurants.” The I.Q.M. report is a stunning counter-argument to the claims in the studies that MAMA published, including one in which both launch sites are deemed “not only technically feasible but also feasible in economic and financial terms.”
I.Q.M. Research Institute is a nonprofit organization that provides research and analysis for the government and industrial clients. The institute states in its report that it analyzed historical data and spoke with more than eighty senior executives, military leaders, and other experts within the space industry, including those at academic institutions, private spaceport operators, vertical- and horizontal-launch-system providers, think tanks, and other organizations. In contrast, the feasibility studies that MAMA put on its Web site were conducted by three for-profit consulting companies: B.R.P.H., which was referred to in a brochure for MAMA’s space summit as an “Official Architecture, Engineering and Construction Consultant for Michigan Launch Initiative,” as well as Kimley-Horn, and InterFlight Global. Kimley-Horn and B.R.P.H. were two of several sponsors of MAMA’s space summit, and representatives from both spoke at the conference.
When asked about the I.Q.M. report, MAMA said that it never asked the institute to look into the economic feasibility of the Michigan Launch Initiative, and that I.Q.M. provided recommendations that it was not “qualified” to give. MAMA also alleged that, unlike its other consultants, I.Q.M. failed to provide its sources, which prevented MAMA from being able to independently verify the report’s findings. Some of I.Q.M.’s recommendations were “self-interested,” MAMA added, space-data analytics being “one of the services it sells.”
Mike Dudsik, the president of I.Q.M. and a retired general with more than two decades of experience developing space programs, rejected MAMA’s claims, including the allegation that I.Q.M. had a financial interest in its recommendations about space-data analytics. “The people who worked on this report were engaged every day in the space economy and are some of the leading experts in space economic policy,” he said, adding that I.Q.M. routinely briefed MAMA on the meetings it was having with sources who contributed to the report.
At Granot Loma, Baldwin made a comment that stuck with me as I thought about the human history of Lake Superior. We had been discussing the difficulty that his neighbor to the north had encountered in selling his property of a hundred and seventy acres, with a shoreline of mostly rocky outcroppings. “Lake Superior is not really usable,” Baldwin had said. “Other than for the view.” It was an off-the-cuff remark from an entrepreneur and a potential co-developer of a spaceport, but it also just wasn’t true.
Marquette residents have been drinking Lake Superior water for more than a hundred and forty years; a filtration plant produces about three million gallons of water daily. The lake also serves as a shipping lane between ports such as Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Duluth, Minnesota, and the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, which enable vessels to enter the lower Great Lakes and to sail along the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. Roughly seven thousand ships pass through the locks every year. One afternoon, I looked at a Web site that tracks, in real time, the number of vessels on Lake Superior and their destinations. (I was aware that the real-time ship-tracking data were made possible, in part, by a satellite sent into space by a rocket.) There were twenty-six ships when I checked, and many were travelling in the lake’s southern half, to and from Duluth, around the Keweenaw Peninsula, and along a path following the U.P.’s shoreline toward the locks—a passageway that might be restricted during a rocket launch at Granot Loma.
An online petition opposing the spaceport has nearly twenty-five thousand signatures, most from residents of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—states with Lake Superior shoreline. By late last year, even some of the residents who’d initially been supportive of MAMA’s plan had begun to sour on it. Last October, Gerry Corkin, the chairman of the Marquette County Board of Commissioners, who’d originally called the plan a “home run,” seemed to have become disillusioned with MAMA. “They haven’t been up here talking to the public about it and making the tentative plans clear to people who live here,” he said. “To me, if you have a problem with people who have negative thoughts about what you’re going to do, you need to get up and talk to Powell Township and pay attention to their questions.”
Meanwhile, Baldwin’s attitude toward the plan’s opponents was not exactly neighborly, even though he has lived in Powell for thirty-five years. “Opposition to the spaceport is primarily senior citizens who are retired,” he told me. “They’re afraid of what the spaceport might bring in terms of people.” He went on, “Everything else you’ve heard is just smoke to stop it.” Baldwin seemed to miss a conspicuous distinction between himself and his generational peers—for he, too, is a senior citizen—who live in the area: his wealth and his power to negotiate with space-industry players. Baldwin, for his part, said that he would not move if a spaceport is built at Granot Loma. That’s one thing he has in common with his neighbors. “This is my last resort up here,” Dennis Ferraro, who is seventy-five, told me. “I’m not going anywhere. They’re going to scatter my bones or ashes on this property. I’m committed to leaving this land for people a hundred years from now. Hopefully, it will look the same.”
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