#SpaceWatchGL Opinion: Maine tackles the global space economy

  • November 24, 2023


by Christophe Bosquillon

The Maine Space Conference took place in-person and online on November 5-7, 2023, in Portland, Maine. This event marked a significant milestone for the state (a video summary can be watched here).

The current state of Maine’s space affairs

Maine is a state on the US northeastern coast that shares borders with Canada: quite convenient to reach polar orbits. While contemporary Maine might not strike you as a “space state” like of Florida, Texas, or Colorado, it turns out the countrie’s industrial and technological base is positioned to be a growing contributor to the US and global space economy. The Maine International Trade Center conducted an overview of the space industry within its borders: it turns out Maine counts about 10 companies specifically focused on space, and another 75 that are active in aerospace industry value chains. Maine’s demonstrated strengths include manufacturing capabilities, such as metals and composites, that are relevant to the space industry. For example, heat shields are made-in-Maine: one company, Spirit AeroSystem, manufactures NASA heat shields for solar system exploration.

The Maine Space Complex Initiative: strong on data

There is an ongoing initiative to develop a Maine Space Complex with three core business units: a space data and advanced analytics center, an innovation hub, and a launch sites and services unit. It turns out Maine’s geographical advantage for launching small rockets and satellites into polar orbit ends up providing greater exposure to land mass for data collection. The conference reviewed thoroughly the state of space data opportunities. As a downstream market, data is strongly relevant to two essential components of the Maine ecosystem: forestry and coastal marine activities. Hence a major Blue Economy implication for Maine space. Finally, Maine has been learning its lessons in spaceport operations globally, that will be applied to the Maine Space Complex Initiative.

Building an innovative ecosystem for space in Maine

Maine is neck-deep in grassroot level work to create new industry connections. Collaboration with incumbent companies that have established roles in the space domain seems to be the path forward to accelerate the growth of Maine-based companies. But it also involves genuine space research in Maine, from enabling technologies for deep space cubesats to space architectures for the future. To grow a space ecosystem, Maine is also encouraged to explore publicly available NASA patent licensees, plug into federal research labs, and promote opportunities for remote positions. Building an innovative ecosystem for space in Maine also includes the indispensable features of space law, finance, and policy. Issues related to regulating space transportation, best practices for protecting and capturing intellectual property, as well as sustainable space activities (specifically, orbital debris) were thoroughly covered by the conference.

The indispensable human resources buildup

The Maine Space conference’s human angle was even particularly interesting. When tackling the indispensable human resources buildup for Maine in space, the conference put a strong emphasis on education. While the heartfelt testimonies of teachers were compelling, students too enthusiastically took the stage. Interesting sessions covered topics such as “Transforming space curiosity to STEAM skills & careers”, “Building Maine’s Artemis generation from K-12 to Businesses », while taking “A look at Space STEM Education and lessons learned”.

The conference further addressed space related workforce issues: there is a major space workforce shortage in Maine (and not just in Maine if you ask) but at the same time more needs to be done to highlight space related career opportunities and build up the “space workforce of the future”. The country is strongly encouraged to look beyond local boundaries for opportunities and engage on the global stage. For starters, promoting opportunities for remote positions to grow expertise, and advertising the existing talent pool in Maine, would go a long way to address space related workforce issues.

Active in-person and online engagement with conference speakers and attendees

The conference participants were a dynamic bunch of 321 attendees, engaging actively among themselves and with speakers. Many discussions and polls took place online, from above mentioned Maine space locally-related topic to more global topics. We launched several discussion threads that generated dynamic responses: engaging beyond the space bubble toward new-to-space industries to develop new markets (a resounding “yes”); considering cooperation with ‘Emerging Space Countries’ (90% in favor); how to better communicate with the public on complicated space topics (avoid hype and jargon, focus on practical use of space); And other topics, Moon included. Dozens of genuine conversations and connections ensued.

Main Space startups

It’s worth to mention four local participants representing the growing Maine Space sector:

Jourdan Johnson , Founder at Space Futures Consulting, who led the panel on Sustainability.

Patrick Selby, Tech Guru at Portland Technology Group, provided two relevant presentations: one reckoning that IT infrastructure is different when operating in LEO, GEO, Lunar, and on Mars, thus asking what should companies be thinking about today in order to get ready for the space economy. And another presentation titled “EVA Link – Analog to Virtual for Safety and Science,” which is a project initially developed by the Mars Society Chicago Chapter. The project is about ground activity sensing, mapping, and monitoring using VR, relevant to coordinated field science and improved safety and situational awareness for space analogs. This system, which could also be used in disaster zones or remote areas on Earth, is looking for angel funding to reach prototype phase.

Trevor Hehn, independent attorney, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at OrbitsEdge, Inc, participated actively in our discussions, and provided background and insights on how Maine could develop and implement a relevant space strategy.

Last but not least, Mark L. LeClair , CEO and Founder at NanoSpire, Inc, which commercializes cavitation reentrant jet-based tools and processes. The company provided the first machine tool capable of cutting, drilling, welding, hammering, coating, and annealing materials by harnessing and controlling the energy of cavitation microjets. These machine tools have relevant applications in industrial manufacturing value chains. The company has won the Innovation Technology Award at the Nanotech 2003 + Future Conference in Tokyo, Japan.

An ecosystem to tackle the global space economy

Maine is on a right track to becoming a strong ecosystem in the US and global space economy. To witness its rebirth in space was a privilege, as participants kept asking honestly each other the hard questions on how to get there. Humility rather than hype. Pragmatism rather than wishful thinking. An American attitude: we can do this. Maine is there to stay, all the way to the stars.

For a deep dive into how Maine plans to grow into a major space ecosystem, please refer to the “Maine Space Complex Draft Strategic Plan Report” prepared for the Governor of Maine and the Maine Legislature by the Maine Space Grant Consortium