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Sheboygan's space odyssey

City can compete in the spaceport business, rocket launch boosters say

By DAN EGAN
degan@journalsentinel.com
Posted: Dec. 26, 2005

Sheboygan - When Dave Wied looks out the window of the downtown apartment he shares with his wife and two little girls in this blue-collar city of 50,000, he sees an empty parking lot and the backside of an aging auditorium.

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A group of ambitious Sheboyganites sees something entirely different when they gaze at the same city block, which holds the Sheboygan Municipal Auditorium and Armory at the edge of downtown. They see the seeds of what could one day blossom into the Great Lakes Aerospace and Science Center and the Sheboygan Spaceport - a rocket-launching facility on the shore of Lake Michigan that they hope will one day handle payloads headed for outer space, as well as commercial space travel.

The science center is to be built as an educational center for kids.

The spaceport would be a launch pad for rocket scientists and astronauts.

"I can't see that happening," the 28-year-old Wied said with a giggle. "That seems a little goofy."

Indeed, while lots of people shoot for the moon, they don't actually take aim with rockets. But that is exactly what backers of this seemingly improbable cause are up to.

Draft legislation has passed through a state Senate committee as well as the Joint Committee on Finance and is now arcing toward a full vote in the Senate. It would create the Wisconsin Aerospace Authority, a nine-member body appointed by the governor as well as Senate and Assembly leaders that could sell up to $100 million in bonds and have the right of eminent domain to, presumably, claim the needed property to build a launch facility.

The hope is to capture a piece of a burgeoning private rocket market and to get aboard the space tourism business that boosters expect to emerge in the coming years. There is no reason, they argue, that Sheboygan could not compete with states like New Mexico, Oklahoma and Florida in the spaceport business.

"We see the potential of Wisconsin being the north-central regional spaceport in the U.S.," said George French, president of Rocketplane Ltd, a firm developing a re-usable spaceship from a modified private jet that is equipped with a rocket.

"Chicago would probably love to have this," added French, who also owns a Green Bay billboard and outdoor sign company. "But they have too many people and too congested of airspace."

French said Sheboygan has several things going for it in the space department - proximity to a big body of water in case something goes wrong, a big block of restricted airspace (the legacy of an anti-aircraft training range once located on a nearby bluff overlooking the lake), and safety facilities - he notes the old brick Coast Guard station right across the street from the auditorium.

"Obviously," he says, "it's not a done deal."

Not everyone shares French's enthusiasm and optimism.

"I voted against it," said Sen. Russ Decker (D-Schofield). "There are more pressing needs in the state of Wisconsin than some George Jetson initiative that started with a pipe dream."

No laughing matter

If the idea of rocketing into space from inside Sheboygan city limits leaves you snickering, you probably don't have a PhD in aero-astro engineering.

Eric Rice does, and he says the idea "absolutely" makes sense.

"I expect it will happen within a few years," said Rice, founder and president of Madison-based Orbital Technologies Corp., a 55-employee firm that bills itself as "Wisconsin's aerospace research and product development leader." The company has, according to its Web site, landed more than $80 million in government contracts since its founding in 1988.

"Initially, it's probably going to be sounding rockets and small little payloads for experiments, but that's how things start," he said.

Rice said the open airspace and water next to Sheboygan are key elements for a launch facility. As for Sheboygan being too cold, he said the Russians have launched at latitudes farther north.

"We hope to launch up there some day," he said.

Rice notes that suborbital rockets have in fact already launched from the Sheboygan lakeshore. Each spring for the past decade, Midwestern high school students have descended on Sheboygan for the annual Rockets for Schools program. The event is an opportunity for the budding engineers to hone their launch skills with small-scale rockets. But some years, professionals from Florida have shown up with much bigger rockets that blast about 60 miles into the sky.

Gary Dikkers, airspace manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said the state has granted special authorization for those launches, which take place on a pier across the street from the auditorium.

"The place that they use for Rockets for School is already designated (by the state) as a spaceport," Dikkers said.

But wouldn't the blast from the mammoth rockets needed to launch a manned space flight turn downtown Sheboygan into a lump of melted glass?

"We're not talking about Titan IIIs or anything," said James Testwuide, a local businessman. "We're not talking huge blast areas."

Testwuide said the program could start with rockets not much bigger than some of the bigger rockets launched at the Rockets for Schools events.

And, he said, the manned flights likely would not be Space Shuttle-style vertical launches, but rather runway launches with winged vehicles that go vertical with a rocket blast when they reach altitudes around 40,000 feet.

That might take a special runway, which Testwuide said could, perhaps, someday be built out in Lake Michigan, which is rather shallow off the city of Sheboygan.

"It isn't a deep part of the lake," said former Lt. Governor Margaret Farrow, who has a quarter-century of experience sailing Lake Michigan with her family. "I know that to be a fact from experience."

Farrow has thrown her support behind the proposal.

"I know it's easy to laugh about, but they're serious," she said. "It's another frontier, and we shouldn't overlook the chance."

Chuck Ledin, director of the Office of the Great Lakes for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said he is only vaguely familiar with the idea but did not automatically dismiss the concept of building a launch facility in the lake, or using it for splashdowns, planned or otherwise.

"We'd have to find out what the issues are," he says. "It would be a totally new thing for us."

Hopes of private, federal funding

The legislation, as proposed, does not call for spending any taxpayer dollars on the enterprise. The aerospace authority would be allowed to issue revenue bonds, which the bill sponsors insist would not leave taxpayers on the hook if they could not be paid off.

"They can't issue any bonds unless they can prove they can pay them off through programs that are running," said Eric Schutt, chief of staff for Sen. Joe Leibham, (R-Sheboygan).

Schutt added that the Great Lakes Aerospace and Science Center, to be located at the site of the current auditorium, is a separate, local effort intended to educate school kids and relies primarily on private funds.

Decker isn't so convinced state taxpayers wouldn't be ultimately responsible for the debts of an authority established by the legislature, and he said any space odysseys that begin in Sheboygan should be entirely privately funded.

But the idea behind creating the authority now, said Testwuide, is to establish a means to capture potential federal funds to further explore the possibility of building the spaceport.

Brenda Krainik works across the street from the armory-auditorium and knows only a little about what is being proposed for her neighborhood. She likes the idea of a learning center for kids across the street. She's a bit more dubious about the rocket launches.

But she has seen communities shoot for the moon before; she used to live in neighboring Manitowoc, home of a World War II submarine.

Landing that sub was no small task.

"That definitely was a challenge," she said. "What they said they couldn't do, they did."

From the Dec. 27, 2005 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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