“It’s really remarkable that anyone is considering building a heavy industrial facility [like a launch pad] on the shore of the world’s largest body of fresh water,” said Dennis Ferraro, who lives about 3 miles from the chosen site and leads the opposition group Citizens for a Safe & Clean Lake Superior.
“It’s just a terrible idea. From an ecological point of view it is a disaster.”
In Chippewa County, officials were excited after the Michigan Launch Initiative selected the base as a command location in January 2021. However, Brown’s group has yet to file the necessary approvals with the Federal Aviation Administration for the project.
“I think everyone turned around like we did and said, ‘What did we win?'” said Donald Moore, CEO and general counsel of space finance firm GEOJump, who lives in Chippewa County and worked to land the site there.
“There is no structure. There is no money for that.”
In Oscoda, airport officials are restless, waiting for answers after Brown’s group recommended the former air force base as a location in 2020.
Airport board member Kevin Boyat said he was still hopeful but officials couldn’t get any answers from Brown.
The board sent a letter months ago, he said, giving Brown 45 days to respond. Boyat said it hadn’t heard anything.
“It’s like ordering a new car and waiting six years [for it],” he said. “When you ordered it, you loved it.”
“It’s just been taking so long and we can’t get any information from Gavin,” Boyat said.
Brown said he has complied with every request for information from the state and he remains positive about the state’s prospects in space. He also downplayed environmental concerns, saying all vertical launches at Marquette would use “green energy,” some of which has not yet been developed.
But he also said no final decisions have been made on when to apply for a spaceport license with the Federal Aviation Administration. This will be after a final determination of whether it makes economic sense to proceed.
“It will start when it makes sense,” said Brown, who is also executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, which is an integral part of the space project.
Like all nonprofit organizations, there is a requirement to make Public tax returns, if desired. A Bridge search of publicly available records shows that only the years 2010, 2011 and 2019 are currently available.
Bridge repeatedly asked Brown and his accountant for copies of other tax returns. Brown said he would make them available, including in a midday email on Wednesday, September 14. They still hadn’t been made available as of Thursday morning.
Existing tax records show that 88 percent of total 2019 revenue of $1.5 million came from government grants.
“Something didn’t seem right”
The turmoil comes amid an otherwise exciting time for space exploration.
It has a built-in advantage of being located more than halfway to the North Pole from the equator, allowing launches into “polar” orbits coveted by some commercial satellite companies.
Lawmakers funded the space effort through a nightly approval of a budget that provided money for former Gov. Snyder’s pet projects in the closing days of his term.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer initially declined to honor funding for the space effort due to a lack of detail.
But after changes were approved by lawmakers, their government funded the project, and the quasi-state Michigan Economic Development Corp. has overseen the grant to “evaluate the feasibility of a low-orbit launch site in Michigan.”
The Michigan Launch Initiative was scheduled to complete work in January 2021 but has received two extensions. At the same time, the grant grew from $2 million to almost $2.5 million.
The grant surprised Kirk Profit, a former lawmaker-turned-lobbyist.
He said the funds came up not long after Brown applied for a $2 million investment from Kalitta Air to fly rockets into the stratosphere in its cargo planes at Willow Run and Oscoda Airports.
Profit was Kalitta Air’s lobbyist at the time and said he and the company could find out little about Brown’s background.
“We checked it out. We ended up just putting it aside,” Profit said recently. “Something didn’t seem right.”
Michigan is progressing, though some critics say the state is far behind others in the race to build infrastructure for the burgeoning space industry.
One of the critics’ main sources of criticism is a report commissioned by Brown’s group.
The IQM Research Institute paper noted that the economics of the commercial space industry have changed radically since Brown first put forward the idea of Michigan launches.
The report, written by former Air Force Brigadier General Michael Dudzik, who commanded all of the industry’s space forces, said the cost of getting satellites into space has dropped dramatically, from $7,000 a pound to less than $1,000. And a few big players — including Elon Musk’s SpaceX — dominated the market.
More than one Dozen spaceports in 10 states have received licenses from the FAA in recent years, and most have not made a single launch.
In its 2021 report, IQM reported that there had been just 16 polar orbit launches — like the one Michigan was able to accommodate — from three US spaceports in the previous three years.
With other locations dominating the market, IQM’s report concluded that so few new businesses would surround the launch sites that even with one launch per week, “the annual revenue generated … would have the same revenue impact in the state equal to the annual sales of two.” other fast food chain restaurants.”
“He only sold the concept, but it was separate from the basic facts,” Dudzik told Bridge.
Brown criticized the conclusion when speaking with Bridge, saying it unfairly characterized the value of the food and beverage industry.
Dudzik’s report went “beyond the scope” of what was asked to study, he added.
“A business case was not made,” he said.
However, Brown’s nonprofit organization’s website has a study examining it “business case” for launches.
The August 2021 four-page study concludes the sites will attract 30 aerospace companies and generate $13.2 billion over the next 10 years.
reasons for optimism
Despite the turmoil, many remain optimistic that Michigan could benefit from the space industry.
IQM’s report concluded that Michigan could still benefit without allocating tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to launch facilities, as other states have done, including New Mexico, Colorado and Georgia.
Michigan has great advantages, with or without launch sites, said Greg Autry, director of the Thunderbird Initiative for Space Leadership, Policy and Business at Arizona State University.
He said Michigan’s manufacturing heritage puts it perfectly positioned to build rockets and their components. But focusing on launch sites before identifying a rocket builder is “a way of putting the chicken before the egg,” he added.
Michigan’s space efforts are “half-hearted,” Autry said, because they lack vigorous government-private sector collaboration.
The Colorado Space Coalition includes state government leaders, as well as representatives from the academic and private sectors. Although the launch pad has not yet been used, the coalition is actively working to expand the state’s aerospace industry.
If Michigan adopted the Colorado model and got everyone around the table, “you’d be displacing Colorado in no time,” Autry said.