by Peter Chow
Just as Houston is Mission Control Center for Cape Canaveral, the former Kincheloe Air Force Base, just south of the Michigan Sault, has just been chosen as the Command and Control Centre for a satellite-launching enterprise that will create at least 40,000 high-paying jobs in the state.
There recently has been a rush by states to build commercial launch sites, also known as spaceports, in hopes of capturing some of the anticipated growth in the satellite launch business and even space tourism.
There also has been a rush of private companies trying to build new rockets, similar to what entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX accomplished.
Worldwide, there were about 300 satellite launches between 2016 and the end of 2018. That number is projected to grow to 600 launches over the next three-year period.
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are quietly racing each other to deploy their respective giant internet-beaming satellite constellations known as Starlink and Kuiper in polar orbits.
Musk plans for the Starlink constellation to consist of thousands of mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit, 1,440 by the end of 2021.
Bezos plans to eventually launch 3,200 internet-beaming satellites to form the Kuiper constellation.
Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) announced this month that the former Kincheloe Air Force Base was selected from four short-listed Michigan locations.
MAMA will build a vertical launch site at Sawyer Air Force Base near Marquette and a horizontal site at Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda, south of Alpena.
The sites were chosen so as to be relatively remote and situated next to a Great Lake, so rockets wouldn’t fly over populated areas.
Traditional vertical launch vehicles use rocket power to take off from a fixed launch pad.
Horizontal reusable launch vehicles take off and land on conventional airport runways, using jet power or a controlled glide.
The command and control centre will support launch sites and provide capabilities for both the Department of Defense and commercial space organizations.
It will manage satellite operations once rockets carrying small- and mid-sized satellites are launched from the horizontal and vertical launch sites into low Earth orbit, which about 1,200 miles above the Earth. It also will manage research and development for high-speed suborbital flights.
When the Michigan launch sites get built, at Oscoda and Marquette, their rockets will carry small commercial satellites in a northbound direction and into a low-earth orbit, specifically a polar orbit where objects pass from the North Pole to the South Pole.
Polar orbit is different from equatorial orbits, which are better reached using launch pads such as Cape Canaveral, nearer the Earth’s equator.
Satellites in polar orbit are particularly good for commercial activities such as beaming internet, monitoring pipelines, agriculture yields and tracking ships.
The association wants to eventually initially conduct 25 launches a year from the Marquette and Oscoda facilities, generating an estimated $15 million in revenue per launch.
The launch rate will then rapidly increase afterwards.
Reports from Morgan Stanley indicate that this is going to be a $1.1 trillion industry by 2040, while Bank of America said it will be a $3.3 trillion business by 2048.
What’s more, there are plans to produce biofuels for rockets on site to make it a “green” spaceport.
Aerospace companies bring with them high-paying jobs.
The median salary for a research and development senior systems engineer is approximately US$103,900 per year. A senior mechanical system engineer makes approximately US$97,800 per year. Other construction, manufacturing, and trade jobs are also anticipated to be created.
The association sees tourist potential for its Upper Peninsula launches, with hotels and dining establishments reaping benefits.
Operations are expected to start at the Oscoda horizontal launch site in late 2023, and at the Marquette vertical launch site by early 2024.
A possible problem for Michigan is the close proximity to Ontario and Canadian airspace, especially because the rockets would fly north.
But, a Michigan-launched rocket would likely hit outer space before it does Canadian airspace. Still, Canadian officials have been consulted on the plans.
“We’ve already engaged the Canadians to have them as partners, so this would be an international spaceport.”