Space tech startup examines Unalaska for potential satellite launch site

A valley with some snow on a bright day.
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 building a road down Ugadaga Trail, a popular hiking trail and historic Unangax̂ trading path. (Maggie Nelson/KUCB)

A tech startup that visited Unalaska in 2020 as a potential satellite launch site says they are finalizing their 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 identified Ugadaga Bay as a possible location to build a large centrifuge to launch satellites into low Earth orbit. The project would likely require building a road down Ugadaga Trail, a popular hiking trail and historic Unangax̂ trading path.

While the land at Ugadaga Bay is owned by the Ounalashka Corp., the island’s Native village corporation, visitors have to 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 examining a large number of launch sites,” Diane Murphy, a SpinLaunch spokesperson told KUCB. They won’t comment until that decision is made.

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

The Ounalashka Corp., which is a private company, owns much of the land that would be used, and city officials were reluctant to discuss the matter. So KUCB requested records from the city to get a window into the situation.

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

Representatives from the space technology company visited Unalaska in September of 2020 and gave a presentation to city officials about their plans to work with the community.

Emails between city officials shortly after discuss the potential risks and benefits of having SpinLaunch in Unalaska.

In correspondence between city officials, Unalaska Director of Public 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, the director of Public Works for Unalaska, lauded the potential for SpinLaunch to help diversify the local economy.

But Ports Director Peggy McLaughlin raised concerns about the long-term economic benefits to Unalaska.

“It sounds [like] Unalaska may provide SpinLaunch the ideal location, but SpinLaunch [has] little or nothing long-term to offer in return,” McLaughlin responded.

McLaughlin told KUCB this week that she asked questions about the 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 satisfying responses and she left the September 2020 meeting with more questions than answers.

After that meeting last year, the city’s associate planner, Thomas Roufos, stressed the importance of SpinLaunch developing a public outreach plan, and having a clear aim for “how they’ll invest back into the community.”

Roufos also stressed the importance for the Ounalashka Corp. to handle the loss of the Ugadaga trail.

The Ounalashka Corp. owns the land at Ugadaga Bay and has been tight-lipped about any plans to develop it. The corporation’s chief executive, Chris Salts, has not responded to several requests for comment.

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

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

According to a note from the planning department, the proposed site would cover around 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 for people with limited mobility — but it would be blocked off during launches. The company estimates they would conduct approximately 10 launches a day, which could last around two hours each. If accurate, that would render the road essentially closed to the public.

Emails also show discussions around the sonic booms the centrifuge would create every time it launches. But the company says the blasts would not affect Unalaska city residents 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 having the opportunity to create jobs and to generate significant tax revenue for the city, which has been a chief concern of late.

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

An illustration from SpinLaunch’s website depicts an accelerator and launch site. (SpinLaunch)

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

The company would need 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 commercial space license application that would support launches from Unalaska.”

An email SpinLaunch sent in January 2021 said they are “still very interested in Unalaska.”

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

Representatives from the company said last month they are in the final stages of picking a location for their next launch site and will inform the community with any further updates.

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Previous articleLive performances and outdoor activities planned for Anchorage New Year’s Eve celebration
Next articleTalk of Alaska: Crisis Now and mental health resources