Portland conference highlight’s Maine’s space industry potential

  • November 9, 2023
Published November 8, 2023 at 6:25 PM EST

Maine’s enthusiasm for space exploration has been on display this week at a conference in Portland.

Terry Shehata, the executive director of the newly-created Maine Space Corp. was worried: as late as August there were only about 70 registrations for a conference it was hoped would draw 150. But, when it opened this week, nearly 400 people were in attendance.

Mike Galvin, a researcher and teacher at Princeton University, shows off a cube that can hold 10-20 different experiments and can be sent to the International Space Station.

“I think it’s amazing. It validates the interest that, at least those who attended, but I think represents Maine as a whole, that there’s interest in engaging in the space economy,” he says.

Maine has assets that could be useful for space companies. One of them is the former Loring Air Force Base. Already the site of a rocket launch nearly three years ago, it’s Loring’s runway and associated structures that has Richard Lugg wanting to move his Hyperspace Propulsion company here from Virginia.

His prototype would take off from Loring with an air-breathing, hybrid engine.

“We’re generating large amounts of electricity on board as we fly up through the atmosphere. And then, once we are, basically, in the vacuum, and we’re in space, we are, we can run a rocket cycle,” he says.

Lugg says this could be the model for future, high-speed transportation:

“Transit times from New York to Singapore: an hour, instead of 18 hours,” he says.

Sascha Deri, founder of Brunswick-based bluShift Aerospace, says Maine is also well positioned to launch more traditional rockets.

“We, here in Maine have a coastline that allows us to go due south, and without going over people or property. You can’t do that anywhere else on the Eastern Seaboard,” he says.

Deri’s company has identified one such site and his company is working on a rocket that could make a suborbital flight into space.

The space economy is growing, because the size of payloads is shrinking. Mike Galvin, a researcher and teacher at Princeton University, was an exhibitor at the conference showing off a cube less than six inches on a side that can hold 10-20 different experiments and can be sent to the International Space Station.

“It is exceedingly and increasingly accessible for undergrad, and even high school students to be sending their own satellites into orbit and operating them from the ground,” he says.

While there was plenty of buzz at the conference about those possibilities, there has been pushback from those unhappy with rocket noise or other impacts of spaceflight development. At one conference session, there were words of caution from people who experienced that pushback.

Melissa Quinn described what she went through seeking permission to establish an airfield in Cornwall, England, for jets carrying air-launched rockets.

“I was getting harassed constantly. It got really ugly. I got followed home. It was to the point that, on the day of the vote, they filled the whole public gallery and they hung ladders over the edge to pretend they were going to come down on top of us,” she said.

Quinn said she eventually met with a protest leader to talk about the benefits of satellite operation and expanded public outreach efforts.

Maine has set itself a 2030 goal to become an “integral player in the emerging global network of suborbital and orbital transportation to space.”

Organizers hope the space conference held in Portland this week becomes an annual event, keeping Maine focused on that goal.