The plan to make Michigan the next space state

One of the largest log cabins in the world is found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on the edge of Lake Superior. The property, called Granot Loma, measures twenty-six thousand square feet and is owned by Tom Baldwin, a sixty-five-year-old former bond and commodities trader. Baldwin made his fortune in the treasury bond pit of the Chicago Board of Trade, where his colleagues called him the king. He was known to have traded two billion dollars worth of bonds in a single day. Last fall I went to see him at Granot Loma, in Powell township, seventeen miles north of the town of Marquette. He gave me directions over the phone, telling me to turn off the main road and take County Road KE. “Essentially, this is my driveway,” he said. He wasn’t exaggerating. I continued down the road for over a mile until I reached a locked door, which opened seconds after I arrived.

The cabin was built in the early 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 his children’s names. Kaufman died in 1942, and more than four decades later Baldwin bought Granot Loma — and the five thousand acres it sits on — for $4.25 million. “I was looking for a large property that had wilderness for outdoor recreation and privacy, as a retreat,” he told me. He undertook 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 chosen as the location for a proposed rocket launch site, under a plan called the Michigan Launch Initiative. If built, the site, along with two other facilities, would be the Midwest’s first spaceport. The planned site 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 Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, about two hundred miles north of Detroit, where planes carrying satellites would take off from the runways. Operations at both sites would be supported by the third facility, a command and control center, which would be located on the Upper Peninsula in Chippewa County, east of Marquette.

The spaceport plan is the brainchild of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MOM), a professional association founded in 2007. MOM estimates that the command and control center will be operational by 2023 and that the three spaceport sites will be operational by 2026. Their initiative has become polarized: some locals believe that the spaceport will benefit the economy and will attract more talent to the state, while others, especially those who live near Granot Loma, worry about the potential disruption of rocket launches in their backyards. Many are also worried about potential environmental risks, given that rockets from the vertical site would be launched close to shore and likely fly over Lake Superior.

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When I spoke with Baldwin at Granot Loma, we sat in a spacious alcove that looked like the deck of a ship ready for the voyage. Beyond the windows, the waters of the lake stretched gray and frothy to the horizon. “It’s the most inhospitable place on Lake Superior,” Baldwin said. “We’re moving up the peninsula, and we usually have north or northwest winds blowing at thirty miles an hour coming straight to the lodge, as well as rain, sleet and snow.”

Lake Superior is apparently more of an ocean than a lake. By area, it is the largest body of fresh water in the world. If you haven’t seen it up close or from an airplane, and even if you have, it can be hard to grasp the significance of a lake so huge 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 and uninhabited area for launching rockets.

Baldwin said he started communicating with MOM in 2019. Earlier that year, the organization received a $2 million taxpayer-funded grant from the state of Michigan to conduct a series of feasibility studies for a possible spaceport. One of these studies was to examine several potential launch sites throughout the state, and MOM hired consultants who rated the sites in categories ranging from “environment” and “safety” to “business”. By the end of the process, the consultants had identified the Baldwin land as the ideal vertical launch location.

Baldwin told me that MOM is interested in acquiring half of his five thousand acres. (A spokesperson for MOM would only confirm that the group is seeking to acquire “part” of Baldwin’s land.) The two parties have yet to reach an agreement. “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 two thousand five hundred acres are worth at least one hundred million dollars for MOM.

There are alternatives to selling your land outright. Baldwin could rent it to MOM, or, he said, he could keep the land and become the launch site operator, although that outcome is unlikely. “I haven’t decided what role I want to play,” he said. “It will determine a lot of financial aspects.” When I asked if he would like to be interested in operating the facility, he said, “Yes. I am an entrepreneur. But my reputation is that I don’t play well with other children. He continued, “Is my goal to operate a spaceport? No, I hesitate. You are getting old. You lose energy. As intriguing as this sounds to me, I don’t underestimate the amount of energy it would take to do this. I don’t have Elon Musk’s aeronautical training either. So if Elon Musk wanted a joint venture, I would. I asked him if Musk had contacted anyone involved with the Michigan Launch Initiative. “He contacted us,” Baldwin said, before correcting himself and saying Musk had contacted MOM More precisely. (MOM said he discussed the initiative with representatives of Musk’s company, SpaceX, who 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 I could see where MOM wants to explode rockets in orbit. An icy wind blew hard from the lake. “Over there,” he said, pointing to the right of a skinny promontory known as Thoneys Point, beyond his mile-long private beach. “About two thousand feet from shore.” (MOM said the location of the launch pad has yet to be determined.) A few days later, Baldwin emailed me what looked like a satellite image of his earth; a green dot indicated the approximate location of rocket launches. He asked me not to publish it. “My main fear comes from intruders and tourists,” he said.

On July 23, 2020, Gavin Brown, the founder and executive director of MOM, announced that Michigan would become the next “State of Space”. 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-rise buildings surrounded by grassy areas. “You’re Michigan’s vertical site,” Brown told the audience. “When people say the great space race is on, they won’t just say it’s the whole state of Michigan, but they’ll come to UP,” he said, using the acronym for Upper Peninsula, to see where “space technology takes place.” (Brown declined to appear for an interview but answered questions about the Michigan Launch Initiative by email, through a spokesperson.)

There are currently thirteen spaceports in the United States that are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Although the best-known location is probably in Florida, at Cape Canaveral, the locations are geographically diverse: there are spaceports on Kodiak Island, Alaska; near the Mojave Desert; and on the outskirts of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Some are allowed for horizontal launches only; others do vertical launches exclusively; only one, Spaceport America, the New Mexico launch site, is licensed for both. Michigan is one of many states, including Alabama and Maine, that are actively pursuing projects to develop spaceports and related facilities, hoping to create their own equivalents in the space industry of the Silicon Valley.

On August 30, 2021, hundreds of satellite and rocket manufacturers, venture capitalists, lawyers and consultants gathered at a luxury resort and spa near Lake Michigan for a three-day event , sponsored by MOM, called the North American Space Summit. “Welcome to the space gold rush!” proclaimed the summit brochure. The conference offered sessions on topics such as “Highways in Space”, “Cryptocurrency in the Space Economy”, “More Space Ports, 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 founder of Higher Orbits, a non-profit organization that uses space to interest students in STEM. Lucas wore a midnight blue dress covered in stars, planets and swirling galaxies. “I like to think I’m your biggest cheerleader for the 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 here.” She added, “Midwestern Spaceports – I’m all for it!”

MAMA’s Spaceport plan isn’t the first effort to launch rockets from the Upper Peninsula. In the mid-sixties, the University of Michigan conducted a project to launch small experimental rockets for meteorological research from the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, a finger of land pointing toward Lake Superior about one hundred and twenty miles to the north -west of Marquette. Most of the rockets were only a few feet high and some of them were launched from buoys floating on the lake. But, in 1970, Nasa provided two twenty-eight foot rockets, called Nike-Apache, for a land launch, scheduled for mid-December.

The Keweenaw Peninsula often receives more snowfall than any other area in UP, and this winter was no exception. After equipment delays throughout December, a blizzard resulted in several days of heavy snowfall. The first Nike-Apache was finally launched, successfully, on January 29, 1971. Soon after, the rocket line was shut down. Funding had dried up and interest had evaporated; the Keweenaw Peninsula was probably too far away, the weather too brutal.

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