STEUBEN, Maine — A Brunswick-based aerospace firm that had sought to fire small rockets into orbit from Jonesport now is turning its sights to another Washington County town as a possible base for building and launching rockets.
Steuben reached out to bluShift to open the discussion, officials said. And, in a shift, instead of launching rockets from an island, as it planned to do in Jonesport, bluShift now is leaning toward firing them off of a liftboat miles off the coast.
A liftboat is a large, flat boat with long retractable posts or legs that can be lowered to the ocean floor, lifting the vessel out of the water. The rockets, between 20 and 80 feet long and powered with non-toxic fuel, would be guided south over the Gulf of Maine at launch from the lift boat after it is positioned and stabilized at sea.
By launching from a liftboat offshore, the process of transporting rockets to the launch location would be simpler, and bluShift would not need regulatory approval from any nearby town. The company is required to get approvals from the Coast Guard and from the Federal Aviation Administration before any launch can take place.
“It reduces so many hurdles,” Sascha Deri, bluShift’s CEO, said Wednesday.
Deri was in Steuben on Wednesday afternoon, at the invitation of the town’s selectboard, to talk to local residents about what kind of operations the company would like to set up in Down East Maine, where lobster fishing is one of few significant industries.
Deri said the eastern Maine coast is well suited for launching rockets over the ocean in orbits that cross over the north and south poles, rather than over the equator. The rockets predominantly would carry small satellites, also known as cubesats, into low orbits. The company would start with a few launches annually but over the next decade would increase them to up to a maximum of around 30 per year.
About 20 people gathered at the Steuben fire station to hear Deri’s pitch, and none voiced opposition to it.
“Fishing is declining,” Larry Pinkham, a Steuben selectman, said during the meeting. “I want my children and grandchildren to have opportunities.”
Deri said the company would like to build rockets in Steuben and find local water access where it can load rockets onto a liftboat and then come and go from a launch site a few miles offshore. He said launches would only happen when lobstermen are not out hauling traps, and would be scheduled weeks ahead of time so people would know when to expect them.
Deri said the company would look to hire area residents to help in building rockets and in launch logistics, which would include restricting access to the area around the liftboat on launch days, and retrieving spent rocket sections from the ocean within an hour or so after they parachute back down.
He said the work ethic of rural Maine, and technical skills that many area residents have with welding, electrical wiring, and machine fabrication would be a boon for bluShift.
“There’s a real grit factor in Maine,” Deri said. “We don’t need anything flashy. We just need it to work.”
The company would create between 150 and 200 jobs locally just to build and launch rockets, generating between $11 million and $15 million a year in salaries alone, he said.
“We want to work with the town where we are building rockets and basing our launch operations from,” Deri said. “There are a couple of towns we’re talking to, but Steuben is the most attractive of our current options.”
Pinkham, who is a lobsterman, said the town needs economic diversity. Other employers have shown an interest in Steuben over the past few decades, he said, but lost interest after getting a chilly reception from local residents.
“It’s bringing jobs that we need,” Pinkham said. “We want this. It is something for the future.”
Blake Alley, a fourth-generation local lobsterman, said he would like there to be more career opportunities in the area beyond fishing for lobster, which is facing challenges from pending federal regulations aimed at protecting right whales. He said he likes that bluShift is willing, if it expands to Steuben, to set up a scholarship program for local students interested in STEM careers.
“I think it would be a great opportunity for the town,” Alley said. “Washington County has some of the poorest school systems in the state.”
For several months, bluShift had sought to build local support in Jonesport for launching rockets off uninhabited Water Island. Many residents in Jonesport, which is predominantly a lobster fishing community and where Kingfish Maine is seeking approval to build a $110 million land-based fish farm, continued to voice skepticism about the idea, prompting bluShift to abandon its plans in that town and look elsewhere.
Steuben’s selectmen on Wednesday asked Deri to come back in a few weeks to meet again with local residents and to answer any additional questions that they might have. Deri agreed to return for another public meeting at the Steuben town office at 4 p.m., Wednesday, April 27.