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Space tech startup examines Unalaska for potential satellite launch site

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In 2020, SpinLaunch identified Ugadaga Bay as a possible location to build a large centrifuge to launch satellites into low earth orbit. The project would likely require the construction of a road on the Ugadaga Trail, a popular hiking trail and a historic Unangax̂ commercial trail. (Maggie Nelson / KUCB)

A tech startup that visited Unalaska in 2020 as a potential satellite launch site says it is finalizing its choice of location. And while communication between the company and the city began to fade earlier this year, the startup says Unalaska is still in the running.

SpinLaunch has identified Ugadaga Bay as a possible location to build a large centrifuge to launch satellites into low earth orbit. The project would likely require the construction of a road on the Ugadaga Trail, a popular hiking trail and a historic Unangax̂ commercial trail.

While the land in Ugadaga Bay is owned by Ounalashka Corp., the island’s indigenous village society, visitors must cross public land to access it.

The Los Angeles-based startup aims to launch satellites using kinetic energy, as opposed to a traditional rocket launch system that relies heavily on fuel.

“SpinLaunch is in the final stages of reviewing a large number of launch sites,” SpinLaunch spokesperson Diane Murphy told KUCB. They will not comment until that decision is made.

A 2020 city emails mockup shows an approximate location for the proposed SpinLaunch satellite launch site. (City of Unalaska)

The privately held Ounalashka Corp. owns much of the land that would be used, and city officials were reluctant to discuss the matter. The KUCB therefore requested files from the city to have a window on the situation.

Notes from the city’s planning department suggest the 20-acre site would be along the Ugadaga Bay Trail, one of the community’s most popular hiking trails and a historic trade route between villages of Iliuliuk and Biorka.

Representatives of the space technology company visited Unalaska in September 2020 and gave a presentation to city officials on their community collaboration projects.

Soon after, emails between city officials discussing the potential risks and benefits of having SpinLaunch in Unalaska.

In correspondence between city officials, Unalaska’s director of utilities Dan Winters called SpinLaunch “a good project for Unalaska.”

“This is a good opportunity to bring more money into its economy through new technology,” Winters wrote in a September 2020 email.

Tom Cohenour, Director of Public Works for Unalaska, praised SpinLaunch’s potential to help diversify the local economy.

But Ports Manager Peggy McLaughlin has raised concerns about the long-term economic benefits for Unalaska.

” It’s ringing [like] Unalaska can provide SpinLaunch with the perfect location, but SpinLaunch [has] little or nothing in the long run to give back, ”McLaughlin replied.

McLaughlin told KUCB this week she asked about long-term opportunities for Unalaska, such as job opportunities, housing development and an influx of students into the school. She says SpinLaunch was unable to provide satisfactory answers and left the September 2020 meeting with more questions than answers.

After this meeting last year, the city’s associate urban planner, Thomas Roufos, stressed the importance for SpinLaunch of developing a public awareness plan and having a clear objective on “how they are going to reinvest in the community”.

Roufos also stressed the importance for Ounalashka Corp. to manage the loss of the Ugadaga track.

The Ounalashka Corp. owns the land in Ugadaga Bay and has been discreet about any development project. Company chief executive Chris Salts did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A rough sketch of the proposed 20-acre site shows the approximate location of the launch site and a road leading to the bay from the pass at the top of Overland Drive.

SpinLaunch launched its first successful test flight in October from a base in New Mexico. According to the company’s website, the New Mexico accelerator is over 160 feet. And the next site they build could be three times the size.

According to a memo from the Planning Department, the proposed site would cover about 20 acres, with an additional five to 10 acres for road and access.

Emails from 2020 suggest the road would be open to the public – which would make the beach accessible to people with reduced mobility – but it would be blocked during launches. The company estimates it would make around 10 launches per day, which could last around two hours each. If this were correct, it would make the road essentially closed to the public.

The emails also show discussions around the sonic booms the centrifuge would create with each launch. But the company says the blasts would not affect residents of the city of Unalaska because the site is too far from the center of the community and faces the opposite direction.

City officials discussed the benefits of SpinLaunch as being the ability to create jobs and generate significant tax revenue for the city, which has been a major concern of late.

In recent months, city officials have emphasized the importance of diversifying Unalaska’s economy. The city estimates it could lose more than $ 2 million in tax revenue due to the closure of the red king crab fishery and has taken steps to diversify the local economy.

An illustration from the SpinLaunch website depicts an accelerator and a launch site. (SpinLaunch)

In 2018, SpinLaunch considered developing a base in Hawaii, but public opposition prompted company representatives to travel to Hawaii to hold a public meeting. A YouTube video shows angry residents disrupted the April 14 meeting on several occasions and SpinLaunch ultimately abandoned plans for the project.

The company would have to apply for a commercial space license from the Federal Aviation Administration, and the application process would require an environmental review.

An FAA spokesperson said the agency “has not received any applications for a commercial space license that would support launches from Unalaska.”

An email sent by SpinLaunch in January 2021 stated that they were “still very interested in Unalaska”.

But the emails show that correspondence between SpinLaunch and city officials ceased this summer, and the city’s planning director said he had not been in contact with the company since then.

Company representatives said last month that they were in the process of choosing a location for their next launch site and would notify the community of any further updates.

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