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Maine seeks a place in space

Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to reporters, Wednesday, May, 4, 2022, at the State House win Augusta, Maine.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

BRUNSWICK, Maine — When Terry Shehata, a scientist and academic, looks out over the sprawling grounds of the former naval air station here, he sees more than a slumbering runway once used by Cold War submarine hunters.

He sees the future hub of Maine’s hopes to launch satellites into space, a bold proposal that could create thousands of good-paying jobs, collect research data for Maine students, and energize a state with a quaint and quiet reputation for lobsters, forestry, and tourism.

“The mouse that roared, huh?” said Shehata, a leader in Maine’s efforts to seize a piece of the space economy. “We’re taking a big bite of the apple.”

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Shehata is executive director of a Maine-based, NASA-affiliated nonprofit organization that for several years has been exploring ways to benefit from small-rocket satellite launches, whose global revenue he estimated could grow from $7 billion now to as high as $40 billion in 2040.

The state government has also hopped aboard the space plan. Governor Janet Mills signed legislation last month to create the Maine Space Corporation, a public-private partnership that Shehata said will help create the “three-legged stool” of a proposed Maine Space Complex — satellite launches, aerospace development, and an analytics center.

For now, the state’s involvement is not costing taxpayers a penny. The legislation does not dedicate any public funding to the corporation, although it has been given bonding authority.

“We’d be foolish not to take advantage and try,” Shehata said. “This is not a question of, ‘Why Maine?’ It’s a question of, ‘Why not Maine?’ "

Part of the answer is that Maine juts farther east than any state in the nation, Shehata said. Small rockets can be fired south and directly over the ocean, he said, avoiding land and populated areas as they move into orbit over the North and South poles.

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“It won’t look like Cape Canaveral,” he said of the launches, which he estimated are about five years away.

The rockets highlighted are of the size that could be launched from a proposed spaceport in Maine.Maine Space Grant Consortium

Next up is turning the space complex from theory to reality. Shehata said Maine’s window of opportunity could close fast. Polar-orbit launch sites already are up and running in California and Alaska, and plans to build ones are taking shape in Michigan and Nova Scotia.

Two private companies in Maine, bluShift Aerospace and VALT Enterprizes, already have conducted test launches in the state.

Maine has experience in the aerospace industry, with about 85 companies employing a total of 5,000 people. Shehata sees those numbers growing dramatically if the space center takes off. Still, the notion of rockets blasting off along the state’s rocky, pine-studded coast is prompting some eye-rolling. And a bit of trepidation.

“No, it ain’t a good idea,” said Robert Boyce, a clamdigger who lives south of Brunswick. “What happens if there’s a misfire? ‘Hey, we landed a rocket on the Bailey Island General Store!’ "

Such fears are unfounded, said Kristine Logan, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority. None of the small, land-based rockets envisioned by the space complex — some of them only 50 feet tall — would be launched vertically from the former naval air station, now a warren of tech companies and small businesses called Brunswick Landing.

The Navy air base, which opened in 1943, was a mainstay of round-the-clock, antisubmarine surveillance in World War II and the Cold War, eventually closing in 2011. Aircraft from the base also aided the country’s space program in the mid-1960s by helping find Mercury and Gemini capsules after splashdown.

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Shehata said there’s a chance some rocketry could occur there. Given the active airport at the site, Shehata said, “horizontal launches” over the ocean from the underbellies of large jets are a possibility.

Vertical launches are being considered for an undetermined location in Washington County, which is sparsely populated and in the easternmost part of Maine. Shehata said communities will be asked to show interest in hosting the launches before any plans move forward.

“Is there a risk that no one will apply? Yes,” Shehata said.

BluShift Aerospace, a Brunswick-based company, already has seen what local concerns can do.

The company fired a small prototype last year from a former Air Force base in Limestone, a town in far northern Maine, and had been eyeing 11-acre Water Island off Jonesport, near the Canadian border, as a commercial launch site.

But before bluShift founder Sascha Deri could finalize an agreement to lease much of the privately owned island from William Milliken, the proposal crashed into opposition, much of it from lobstermen who feared the rockets would interfere with their livelihood.

“I was surprised when the community didn’t embrace it,” said Milliken, who is chair of the town’s Select Board and recused himself from public meetings on bluShift’s proposal. “People will look back at this as a lost opportunity.”

BluShift agreed to launch only after dark and on Sundays, a day when lobstering is not permitted in the summer, Milliken said. But even if lobstermen and fishermen wouldn’t be affected while working, critics worried about fuel contamination — even though Deri said his launches use nontoxic fuel — and about rocket-bearing parachutes entangling their gear.

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“If this had worked, it could be something great for the community. Our greatest export is not lobsters, it’s our young people,” Milliken said, a reference to the area’s aging population.

“I should be angry at these people for basically spreading fake news about this project, because that’s what they’ve done,” he added. “But it’s a natural reaction to something that they perceive as a threat. I get that.”

Deri, who plans to fire a commercial rocket next year in Virginia, said he remains invested in finding a launch site in Maine. He said bluShift already has received interest from several locations in Down East Maine.

State Senator Matthea Daughtry, a Democrat from Brunswick who filed the space legislation as a House member, said satellite launches are an exciting, out-of-the-box way to reimagine part of Maine’s future.

“When I had the bill come before my committee as a House chair, I said, ‘OK, this is not what you think about when you think of our state.’ But the more you learn about it, it’s a natural fit,“ Daughtry said. “A lot of people think it’s like Star Wars, but it’s this incredible, concrete industry.”

Several lunchtime customers and staff at the Bailey Island General Store, about 15 miles south of Brunswick, also foresaw benefits.

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“If it’s not much of a risk, anything that will bring in business is good,” said Melissa Williams, who works the store’s cash register as one of three jobs.

From the other side of the counter, construction worker Warren Graybill Sr. scoffed when asked if rocket noise is a concern.

“Hell, no. The barking dog next door is worse than a rocket going off,” Graybill said with a chuckle. And what about a misfire? “There’s a few people you could misfire on!” he shot back.



Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.