The plan to make Michigan the next space state

One of the largest log cabins in the world is located on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on the edge of Lake Superior. The 26,000-square-foot property, dubbed Granot Loma, is owned by Tom Baldwin, a 65-year-old former bond and commodities trader. Baldwin made his fortune in the Treasury bond pit of the Chicago Board of Trade, where his peers called him the king. He was known for trading $2 billion worth of bonds in a single day. Last fall I drove to see him in Granot Loma in Powell Township, seventeen miles north of the city of Marquette. He gave me directions over the phone and told me to turn off the main road and onto County Road KE. “Basically, it’s my driveway,” he said. He wasn’t exaggerating. I walked down the road for more than a mile until I reached a locked gate that opened seconds after I arrived.

The cabin was built in the early 1920s 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 stands on—for $4.25 million. “I was looking for a large property with wilderness for outdoor recreation and privacy as a retreat,” he told me. He began a major restoration, installing a kitchen outfitted with appliances similar to those in the White House.

I had come to visit Baldwin because Granot Loma had been selected as the site for a proposed rocket launch site as part of a plan called the Michigan Launch Initiative. If built, the site, along with two other facilities, would represent the first spaceport in the Midwest. The site planned for Granot Loma would host vertical launches that would send rockets carrying satellites and other payloads – not human passengers – into low Earth orbit. The second facility is a horizontal launch pad at Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, about two hundred miles north of Detroit, where aircraft would take off from runways using satellites. The operations of both locations would be supported by the third facility, a command and control center that 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 (MOTHER), a trade association founded in 2007. MOTHER estimates that the command and control center will be operational by 2023 and that all three spaceport sites will be operational by 2026. Their initiative has polarized: some locals believe the spaceport will benefit the economy and attract more talent to the state, while others, particularly those living near Granot Loma, are concerned about the potential disruption from rocket launches in theirs make backyards. Many are also concerned about the potential environmental risks, given that the vertical site missiles would launch near the shore and likely fly over Lake Superior.

[Support The New Yorker’s award-winning journalism. Subscribe today »]

When I spoke to Baldwin in Granot Loma, we were seated in a spacious alcove resembling the bridge of a ship ready for voyage. Outside the windows, the water of the lake stretched gray and foaming to the horizon. “This is the most inhospitable place on Lake Superior,” Baldwin said. “We’re jutting out onto the peninsula and we usually get 30 mph winds from the north or northwest hitting the lodge directly, along with the rain, sleet and snow.”

Seemingly Lake Superior is more ocean than lake. In terms of area, it is the largest freshwater body in the world. Unless you’ve seen it up close or from an airplane — and even if you have — it can be difficult to grasp the importance of a lake so vast it has its own weather system. Lake Superior could accommodate the combined landmasses of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, and Maryland. Like the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, it offers a vast, uninhabited area for launching rockets.

Baldwin said he began communicating with him MOTHER in 2019. Earlier in the year, the organization had received a $2 million taxpayer-funded grant from the state of Michigan to conduct a series of feasibility studies for a possible spaceport. One such study involved reviewing several potential launch sites across the state MOTHER dedicated consultants who rated the websites in categories ranging from “environment” and “security” to “business”. By the end of the process, the consultants had identified Baldwin’s land as the ideal vertical starting point.

Baldwin told me that MOTHER is interested in acquiring half of his five thousand acres. (A spokesman for MOTHER would only confirm that the group is trying to acquire a “part” of Baldwin’s land.) The two parties have yet to strike a deal. “I could sell it to them for fifty million dollars, but I wouldn’t do it,” Baldwin said. “I think it’s worth a lot more to them. They couldn’t do it without me.” He estimates the 2,500 acres are worth at least $100 million MOTHER.

There are alternatives to selling your land outright. Baldwin could lease it MOTHER, or, he said, he could keep the land and become the operator of the launch site, although that outcome is unlikely. “I haven’t decided what role I want to play yet,” he said. “That will determine many financial aspects.” When I asked if he would interested in running the facility, he said, “Yes. I am an entrepreneur. But my reputation is that I don’t play well with other kids.” He continued, “Is it my goal to run a spaceport? no I sway You are getting older. You lose energy. As fascinating as it is to me, I don’t underestimate the amount of energy it would take to do it. I also don’t have the flying training like Elon Musk. So if Elon Musk wanted a joint venture, I would do it.” I asked him if Musk had communicated with anyone involved with the Michigan Launch Initiative. “He reached out to us,” Baldwin said, before correcting himself and saying Musk was in touch MOTHER special. (MOTHER said it discussed the initiative with officials from Musk’s company, SpaceX, which did not respond to a request for comment.)

Showing me Granot Loma, Baldwin opened a door on the east side of the lodge and invited me outside so I could see where I was going MOTHER wants to launch rockets into orbit. An icy wind blew hard from the lake. “Over there,” he said, pointing to the right of a narrow headland known as Thoneys Point, beyond his miles of private beach. “About two thousand feet from shore.” (MOTHER said the location of the launch pad had not yet been determined.) A few days later, Baldwin emailed me what appeared to be a satellite image of his country; A green dot indicated the approximate position for rocket launches. He asked me not to publish it. “My biggest fear is of intruders and tourists,” he said.

On July 23, 2020, Gavin Brown, the founder and CEO of MOTHER, announced that Michigan would become the next “space state”. Standing on the steps of the Marquette County Courthouse, he unveiled four illustrations for the proposed launch site at Granot Loma, showing sleek but generic low-lying buildings surrounded by grassy areas. “They are the vertical location for Michigan,” Brown told the audience. “When people say the great space race is happening, they’re not just going to say it’s the entire state of Michigan, they’re going to come to the UP,” he said, using the upper peninsula acronym to see where “the Technology for space leads place.” (Brown declined to participate in an interview but did answer questions about the Michigan Launch Initiative via email through a spokesperson.)

There are currently thirteen spaceports licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States. Although the most famous location is probably in Florida, in 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 only licensed for horizontal launches; others conduct vertical launches exclusively; only one, Spaceport America, the launch site in New Mexico, is approved for both. Michigan is one of several states, including Alabama and Maine, that are actively pursuing plans to develop spaceports and related facilities in hopes of creating their own space industry equivalents to Silicon Valley.

On August 30, 2021, hundreds of satellite and rocket manufacturers, venture capitalists, attorneys and consultants gathered at a luxury resort and spa near Lake Michigan for a three-day event sponsored by MOTHER, called the North American Space Summit. “Welcome to the Space Gold Rush!” the summit brochure proclaimed. The conference featured sessions on topics such as “Highways in Space”, “Cryptocurrency in the Space Economy”, “More Spaceports, More Opportunities” and various technical and financial aspects of the space industry. One of the speakers was Michelle Lucas, former International Space Station astronaut trainer and founder of Higher Orbits, a non-profit organization that uses space to engage students STEM. Lucas wore a midnight blue dress covered in stars, planets and swirling galaxies. “I like to think that I’m your biggest space cheerleader in Michigan,” she told the crowd. “When I talk to my peers in the industry, especially in manned spaceflight, they have no idea what’s going on out here.” She added, “Spaceports in the Midwest — I’m all in!”

MAMAs The spaceport plan isn’t the first attempt to launch missiles from the Upper Peninsula. In the mid-1960s, the University of Michigan led a project to launch small test rockets for meteorological research from the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, a stretch of land jutting into Lake Superior about 120 miles northwest of Marquette. Most of the rockets were only a few meters high, and some of them were fired from buoys floating on the lake. But in 1970, NASA provided two twenty-eight foot rockets named Nike-Apache for a land launch scheduled for mid-December.

The Keweenaw Peninsula often receives more snowfall than any other area in the UP, and this winter was no exception. After equipment delays in December, a blizzard brought several days of heavy snowfall. The first Nike Apache finally launched successfully on January 29, 1971. Soon after, the missile range was closed. Funding had dried up and interest had evaporated; The Keweenaw Peninsula was probably too remote, the weather too brutal.


Leave a Comment