bluShift Aerospace made history on Jan. 31 by launching the Stardust 1.0 at roughly 3 p.m., marking the world's first commercial launch of a rocket powered by a bio-derived fuel. Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican & News

LIMESTONE, Maine — bluShift’s Aerospace’s successful launch on Jan. 31 not only put the Loring Commerce Centre on the map as a viable spot for vertical and horizontal rocket launches, but likely helped with efforts to establish a statewide spaceport complex.

SpacePort Maine, an initiative led by the nonprofit Maine Space Grant Consortium, would utilize locations across the state, including the Loring Commerce Center, which was once the site of the Loring Air Force base, and Brunswick Landing, which was once the site for Brunswick Naval Air Station, and bring entrepreneurs, researchers and students together in an effort to build space programs within the state.

bluShift’s successful launch of a rocket powered by bio-derived fuel raised awareness for the spaceport, Terry Shehata, executive director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium — of which bluShift is an affiliate — said.

There was initial skepticism about Maine being a viable place for a spaceport. “But when you talk about the access to opportunities we have, they say ‘Why not Maine?’ What bluShift did is a demonstration that we can do it,” Shehata said.

bluShift Aerospace CEO Sascha Deri and his team take apart the Stardust 1.0 rocket to analyze the status of three payloads following a successful launch at the Loring Commerce Centre. Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican & News

The Maine Space Grant Consortium is part of a project started by NASA in 1989 — the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Project, with locations based in each of the 50 states in addition to the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The goal of NASA, and by extension the Maine Space Grant Consortium and SpacePort Maine, is to expand opportunities for people to understand and participate in aeronautics and space projects by supporting and enhancing STEM education, research and public outreach efforts.

Last March, the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business unanimously recommended passing LD 2092, which would establish the Maine Spaceport Complex Leadership Council. But the bill died as the COVID-19 pandemic took priority.

In late September 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration awarded a $444,009 grant — matched with $148,489 in state funds and $111,442 in local funds — to the Maine Space Grant Consortium to help develop a strategic plan for the Maine Spaceport Complex. The leadership council is now assembled.

Shehata said the Maine Space Grant Consortium is a non-profit, 501(c)(3), which has affiliates in higher education, K-12 and the local business community. Affiliates, such as bluShift and VALT, would have preferential treatment in obtaining grant funding from NASA, but they would still need to compete for those funds. Aerospace companies VALT Enterprises CEO Karl Hoose and bluShift CEO Sascha Deri are on the MSGC board.

Shehata said the SpacePort Maine initiative has been about two and a half years in the making, and that Maine is well-suited for launching rockets with cube satellites.

“That’s where the trend in the industry is going,” he said. “The rockets use smaller, cube satellites that are less expensive, and that kind of democratizes space.”

Three of the main components of the spaceport will include a data analytical center, mission control and launch services.

Data analytics could be accomplished online and would not necessarily require a centralized location, and Shehata said mission control — located at Brunswick Landing — would allow for communication between launch sites and assist in research and development. Loring’s existing Cold War infrastructure makes it an ideal spot for launch services.

Launches also could occur off the coast of Washington County, an area uniquely positioned to make launching rockets into orbit possible.

Reactions to the idea of a Maine-based spaceport have seen a significant shift since they were first pitched more than two years ago, Seth Lockman, communications director for bluShift, said. At first, all of his conversations with people ended up with the person he was talking to saying “Wow, that’s crazy.”

bluShift Aerospace’s Stardust 1.0 rocket deploys its parachute on Sunday, Jan. 31, the rocket’s launch mark’s the world’s first ever commercial launch of a rocket powered by a bio-derived fuel. Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican & News

“There were varying levels of incredulity,” he said, “but it was those three words every time. Some thought it was a pie in the sky idea while others thought more in terms of Doc and Marty figuring out that 1.21 gigawatts could power the flux capacitor — they thought ‘wow, that could work,’ but no matter what, they would also say it’s crazy.”

Lockman said that while aerospace is a significant departure from lobsters and blueberries, the state’s leading exports, it’s “really not that crazy.”

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but when you look at what Loring and the Midcoast regional development authorities and the University of Southern Maine are already doing, it’s not that big of a leap for Maine-kind,” he said.

Above all else, he said most were skeptical of bluShift’s ability to host a livestream of its rocket launch in Limestone.

“They said you can push the boundaries of rocketry and retool the state to become an aerospace hub, but a livestream from Loring cannot be done,” he said. “But we did it. We’ve already accomplished, by everyone’s reaction, the most impossible part of the endeavor.”

Carl Flora, President and CEO of the Loring Development Authority, said it was great to see bluShift make world history during its Jan. 31 launch.

“They’re an up and coming company that has developed an engine that operates on bio-derived fuel, and it could be a big thing going forward,” Flora said. “So I applaud them, they did a great job.”

He said the former Air Force base has great potential for horizontal launches — which is when an aircraft carries the rocket up to a certain altitude and then launches it — and he supports the SpacePort Maine project.

“It’s going to gradually evolve over a period of a few years,” he said. “Fortunately we have some people who are very interested. As the private space industry begins to gravitate toward Maine, we’ll be in a good position to take advantage of that.”

Shehata said one of the spaceport’s goals is to bring in people and businesses from other states to utilize the resources within Maine.

And with bluShift’s recent success bringing worldwide attention to Loring and Maine, he said the spaceport initiative is that much closer to becoming a reality.

“If you can show that this is what you can do with the state, the reality of spaceport complexes becomes more real — you can touch it and feel it, and that’s what Sascha and bluShift did two Sundays ago,” Shehata said.