STEUBEN — The town is poised to become a Brunswick aerospace company’s base of operations for launching rockets, carrying small satellites, from a flat vessel offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Announcing Steuben as the winning Maine community last week, bluShift Aerospace also outlined plans to eventually produce the rockets in Washington County’s westernmost town numbering 1,200 residents.
In his June 29 announcement, bluShift founder and CEO Sascha Deri says his company and the Steuben Select Board are exploring potential sites in town to locate the aerospace company’s mission control, rocket storage, customer service and staff housing facilities. He estimated that 150 to 200 jobs would be created over the next five to seven years. Steuben’s own marine-engine, boat-building and commercial fishing industries and the area workforce, proficient in welding, machining, Fiberglassing and other sought-after skills, made the town stand out among the competing Maine towns. The local commercial fishing fleet also offers marine know-how and valuable resources from vessels to wharves.
“The town of Steuben has the right geography, the right people, and the right attitude for this exciting opportunity,” Steuben Select Board Chair Larry Pinkham declared last week in a press release sent out by blueshift Aerospace. “We could not be more pleased to partner with bluShift Aerospace and to join the NewSpace race.”
Like other Downeast towns, Steuben’s geographic advantage is its latitudinal position to efficiently launch satellites over the Atlantic Ocean into a polar orbit — north to south — pole to pole. As its customers, the Brunswick company says it is targeting businesses and academic institutions that currently depend on costly, infrequent rideshares by SpaceX, RocketLab, Virgin Orbit, and other space flight companies.
Tony Atwater, president of Atwater Concrete Inc. and owner of Steuben Country Store, reached out to bluShift Aerospace after the town of Jonesport imposed a moratorium on aerospace activities in response to the local fishing industry and residents’ concerns about the venture’s impact on the lobster resource and marine environment. From Steuben, Atwater has followed the professional career of the Brunswick firm’s CEO — a fellow Mainer — who grew up in Bucksport and Orland. Sascha Deri earned a physics degree from Earlham College and an electrical and electronics engineering degree from the University of Southern Maine. Besides blueshift, Deri also co-owns altE Store in Massachusetts’s north shore town of Boxborough. That company produces solar panels, water pumps, wind turbines and other renewable energy products.
Last winter, Atwater met with Deri to learn more about what bluShift’s proposed rocket operation entailed and invited him to tour Steuben and gauge the Downeast town’s suitability as an alternative coastal Maine site. He introduced Deri to town officials and a series of public meetings followed.
Atwater’s aim is to diversify the Downeast region’s economy and create more employment opportunities not only for the area’s youth, but also for commercial fishermen seeking work to supplement their income in the off-season.
Atwater has young children. Too often, he says local youth attaining college degrees move away to pursue professional careers out of state. The Brunswick startup’s business would put the Downeast region on the map and potentially create a wide variety of jobs from engineers to janitors. “We need something, too, for, our youth,” he stressed Tuesday.
Growing up in Hancock County, bluShift’s founder was among Maine’s youth who initially left Maine to pursue their education and professions. He seeks to reverse that trend.
“I believe bluShift has the ability to not only create jobs but to raise aspirations for the young people of Washington County and for Maine as a whole,” Deri wrote in a Feb. 11 guest column in the Machias Valley News Observer. “Do we really want to tell our children that unless they want to work in Maine’s heritage industries — fishing, logging, blueberries, and tourism — the only place for them is outside of Maine? It’s time for all of us to make some bold, new options available for everyone in our beautiful state no matter where they live.”
Providing opportunity, but not at the expense of the environment is key to Deri’s enterprises. First co-founding Alte Store in Massachusetts and then starting his own company in Brunswick, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, in 2014. A year and a half ago, blueShift became Maine’s first enterprise to launch a rocket, which was the first commercial rocket powered by its own nontoxic, bio-derived fuel. The launch was from Loring Commerce Centre in the Aroostook County town of Limestone. The carbon-neutral fuel “can be cheaply sourced from farms across America.” It uses nitrous oxide bubbled with oxygen as an oxidizer, Deri said in a Jan. 31, 2021 Space magazine article.
Besides the bio-fuel to power its rockets, bluShift also intends to run its Steuben operation with solar and other renewable energy. The company also contacted University of Maine lobster scientist Robert Bayer, who conducted a weeks-long study on the biofuel’s impact on live lobsters. “The lobster basically ignored the fuel,” Bayer related. “I can tell you that the fuel is inert and not water soluble, so I didn’t expect anything to come out of it. All I can say is this fuel is completely harmless as far as the marine environment is concerned.”
In the long-term, BluShift plans to launch a maximum of 32 orbital and suborbital rockets annually. During the first few years, only four to six rockets will be propelled into space offshore from a flat vessel — “lift boat” — equipped with long, retractable legs standing on the ocean floor. The rocket launches would occur in the evening or after dark between April and October. Some launches also may take place on days when fishing is prohibited between Memorial Day and Labor Day.