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Potential rocket launch site highlights Michigan's role in the space industry

An overhead shot of the Oscoda-Wurtsmith airport
United States Geological Survey
The Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, formerly home to a military air field, is in the running to become a site for horizontal rocket launches.

Cape Canaveral might have a bit of competition up here in the north. The Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport near Lake Huron is being considered as a spot for a horizontal rocket launch site. Stateside spoke to Justin Kasper, a professor with the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan, about how the site might be used and Michigan’s past and future place in the space industry. 

What is a horizontal launch? 

The sites where you see vertical launches, like those at Cape Canaveral, were chosen because of their proximity to the equator. That's because the spin of the earth gives whatever is being launched an extra push. 

“There’s another way to launch a rocket, which is actually to put it on an airplane, have the airplane take it up to a high altitude, and then it launches when it’s above a lot of the atmosphere and the friction that the atmosphere has. That’s this horizontal launch you referred to. And so [Michigan] is as compelling a location as any. We’re starting to see a lot of different companies developing new rockets and new launch capabilities and Michigan wants to be a part of that.”

What makes Michigan an attractive place for a rocket launch site? 

“You see these industries coming together to partner to look for supporting a launch site. We’re all keying off of a couple things: realizing that this is something a state can go after, realizing that, in particular, in the state of Michigan, you have a lot of highly-educated students coming out of the universities. You also have a lot of available physical space—industrial space that might have been used in the automotive industry that’s available now. That’s pretty amazing if you’re looking to start up a company.”        

What role has Michigan played in the space industry?

“Some of the very first scientific payloads ever launched into earth’s upper atmosphere had their genesis at the University of Michigan. At the end of World War II, some leftover V2 rockets that were recovered from Germany were used for scientific applications, and the University of Michigan got in at the very beginning in developing some experiments that measured the composition of Earth’s upper atmosphere, its temperature and pressure. So different scientists and engineers just within the university system have been developing payloads to explore the solar system, the planets, the sun from the very beginning of the space age."

Oscoda’s water has been tainted by PFASfrom fire fighting foam used at the Wurtsmith Air Force base. What would an expanding space industry mean for the environment in Michigan?

“The good news is people are developing much cleaner and safer chemicals for launch than you would have seen used years ago, and in particular for these smaller satellites, which I’d expect to see would be the best opportunity for this horizontal launch. Green fuels might sound a little silly, but specifically what we mean is developing fuels that are not toxic.” 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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