Commercial space industry counts on Kodiak launches, but some locals are a no-go

a Kodiak spaceport sign
The entry gate to the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska on Narrow Cape in October 2019. (Photo by Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

Kodiak’s Pacific Spaceport Complex could be an opportunity for Alaska to get in on the ground floor of the commercial space industry, which some analysts say could become a $1 trillion industry by 2040. But if the industry is going to grow in Kodiak, it has to overcome some local opposition first.

Back in March, California-based aerospace company Astra successfully sent a rocket into space from the Pacific Spaceport Complex. Its payload included a few smaller satellites; those are often developed by tech companies for things like weather observation, or providing GPS data. 

Milton Keeter is the chief executive officer of Alaska Aerospace, which operates the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak’s Narrow Cape. He said it used to take a year or more for those satellites to get up into space.

“So, the new rocket industry has decided to say, ‘Hey, how about I make a smaller rocket that I can launch more often? And then I can get these smaller payloads up more quickly,’” said Keeter.

That’s what makes Kodiak’s Spaceport Complex on Narrow Cape unique – it’s one of only four facilities in the U.S. that can launch those types of rockets into orbit. 

Alaska Aerospace makes its money from contracts with the federal government and private companies. The company is state-owned, but hasn’t received state funding since 2015.

Astra is one of two companies that currently have contracts to use Kodiak’s spaceport. The other, ABL Space Systems, is another California company that spent much of this summer testing technology for its new, smaller rocket from the island’s facility. And just this summer, the federal government renewed its Missile Defense Agency contract with the Kodiak complex worth up to $110.9 million over three to five years.

On a trip to Kodiak this summer, Sen. Dan Sullivan visited the Spaceport complex and said the work being done there was really exciting and discussed its importance for the country’s overall defense.

But shooting things off into space doesn’t come without controversy. 

Some people never wanted the complex there in the first place, and there have been launch failures – including one that culminated in a fiery explosion back in 2020

Kodiak’s Spaceport is at the end of the island’s road system near several popular beaches – and within a few miles of some homes. Launch windows shut down the one road that provides access to nearby recreation areas, and impose water and air closures, too.

Dan Rohrer is a local businessman and a former borough mayor. He helped develop a master plan that guides the facility’s use and impact to the public. Members of the public, local government and representatives from Alaska Aerospace negotiated the agreement, which guides a decade of use from 2020 to 2030.

a Kodiak rocket launch
Astra successfully launched its second commercial rocket from the Kodiak Pacific Spaceport Complex on March 15, 2022. (Screenshot of livestreamed launch)

“It was a way for the community to talk about future development at the Spaceport to work together with Alaska Aerospace to come up with something that had the least negative impact on the community, while at the same time, still creating a viable Spaceport,” Rohrer said.

But this summer, the Kodiak Island Borough fielded complaints over frequent road closures. People said the closures were happening outside launch windows with little or no notification.  The current Kodiak borough mayor and the borough’s interim manager sent letters to Alaska’s Department of Transportation asking the agency to look into the problem.

And beachgoers weren’t the only ones who were angry. 

Several members of the public addressed Borough Assembly members at a contentious work session in early September – including Paddy O’Donnell, the Board president of the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association. He said an upcoming launch would have temporarily closed an area where dozens of boats were fishing for pollock.

“I think the breakdown in communication is the key issue here, and that they should have organized this launch around a timeframe when it wasn’t impacting such an important economic driver for Kodiak,” he told Assembly members.

Everyone in Kodiak knows how much money is lost when a tender can’t get to a cannery because of a water closure – but the financial impacts of a rocket launch? That’s less clear. Rohrer said finding a balance between existing industries and emerging ones is an economic sweet spot.

“My argument has always been we should absolutely diversify into other things, but we need to be careful that as we diversify into those other things we don’t hurt a guaranteed economic resource,” said Rohrer.

He also had some concerns with paperwork filed by Alaska Aerospace this summer to renew its Interagency Land Use Management Agreement –  also called the ILMA – for the next 30 years with the state of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources. Those concerns included the company’s plan for future road closures.

Some people accused Alaska Aerospace of trying to annex thousands of additional acres into the Spaceport’s existing footprint through the ILMA. Rohrer said that’s not included in the application, but it took off on social media. Alaska Aerospace suspended its renewal application with DNR on Oct. 6; it plans to resubmit an updated application for a second public comment period at a later date. 

Keeter, the CEO, said he’s to blame for this summer’s public backlash. 

“I think that I personally, did not do a good job on communicating with the community on our path forward,” he said.

a Kodiak beach
Fossil Beach, a popular recreation area near Kodiak’s Pacific Spaceport Complex, in February 2022. (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

Keeter said people from Kodiak are a key part of the company’s path forward.  

Alaska Aerospace is headquartered in Anchorage, and the Kodiak facility employs about 40 full and part-time staff plus contractors. Keeter said that number swells around a launch window.

“I work very hard to find employees from Kodiak to support Kodiak Spaceport,” said Keeter. “That’s where we really try to get those first. If we can’t get them there, then we go to Anchorage or other parts of Alaska.”

He said the company has recruited commercial fishermen, and workers from Alaska’s oil and gas industry on the North Slope. They’ve filled administrative positions with employees from Native corporations. He said the complex also has an operating budget of about $15 million, and he fills contracting jobs with Kodiak workers and business. 

Rohrer said if the company continues to hold up its part of the master plan, that’s an exciting prospect. 

“That’s where a lot of true economic development comes from is by having additional people live here, enroll their kids in our schools, be involved in our community,” Rohrer said. 

Alaska Aerospace is in talks with other companies about launching from the island. But Keeter said there’s a limit to how many – and how frequently – launches can happen from Kodiak.

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

Previous articleKenai Peninsula Borough tribes get federal grant to address opioid abuse
Next articleKodiak officials start work after survey finds problems with Alaska’s oldest building