One bright, sunny day in the near future, the inhabitants of tiny Canso, Nova Scotia, might spy from their craggy shoreline a new vessel launching into the great wide open. This time, though, it won’t be a fishing boat they see, but a rocket carrying commercial satellites.
That’s because an unassuming, yet oddly garrulous, mechanical engineer from New Mexico has proclaimed that this, of all possible places in the world, is the perfect site on which to erect a commercial spaceport for Ukrainian-built, Yuzhnoye Cyclone-4M missiles; replete with a blast-off pad, a vehicle-handling complex, and mission control.
Meet Stephen Matier, a former NASA project manager who worked for 16 years at the White Sands Test Facility developing propulsion systems for the American Space Shuttle program. That’s another way of saying that while the president and CEO of something called Maritime Launch Services Ltd. (MLS) may be laughing, he isn’t kidding.
The Albuquerque native, who now resides in Halifax with his wife and two kids, has almost singlehandedly spearheaded the venture over the past three years. He’s met dozens of provincial and federal officials. He’s conducted myriad public meetings and given speeches to community and business groups. He’s completed and submitted environmental assessments and negotiated Crown land-use agreements.
He’s arranged about $210 million in private financing with international and Canadian investors to help vault his start-up company over the initial operational hurdles. He keeps a lid on the details; nevertheless, he reports in an email, “We are looking at a cross cut of equity, non-dilutive debt, [and] launch pre-sales, etc., for our entire needs to get to first launch. The specific split is, of course, fluid and we are under non-disclosure agreements at this point.”
Still, he adds, “My wife, Anne, and I have a lot riding on this in terms of investment, sweat equity and otherwise having transplanted our family here. We’ll be making some investment announcements [soon].”
Through it all, he has fought a pitched battle against critics who think his project, which received provisional environmental approval in June from the Nova Scotia government, is naïve, reckless, or both.
Chuck Black, one of the few journalists in Canada who cover the nation’s commercial space industry full time is somewhat more sympathetic, but only somewhat. “I’m really of two minds about this,” the editor of the Toronto-based Commercial Space Blog says. “In the first place, I appreciate what he’s facing.”
Black notes that the process involved in obtaining a launch licence in this country is cumbersome and primitive, compared with other jurisdictions, such as the United States and the European Union. In this context, he adds, “Matier’s company is putting in enough money at least to go through the process. That should help Canadian governments find out what they want and then, presumably, they’ll start licensing launch providers.”
On the other hand, Black observes, the basic Ukrainian missile technology MLS plans to employ is almost 20 years old. “I know about 100 commercial rocket companies around the world,” he says. “Some of them are really big, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Some of them are really small. About half of them are already using innovative technologies that have been developed within the last five years. But if MLS goes ahead, it would be like competing in the modern car market with new Studebakers.”
None of which seems to daunt Matier. His 2016 project description calls the Yuzhnoye Cyclone-4M rockets the “latest model,” “highly reliable,” and “proven.” If all goes as planned, perhaps as soon as 2021, he’s certain this technology, combined with his industriousness, will transform an unprepossessing spit at the eastern edge of the continent into the only facility of its kind in the country.
That raises the tantalizing possibility of Canso with barely 739 souls (where the average age is almost 50 and the median annual income is less than $24,000) becoming the next Cape Canaveral (with all the economic benefits that might accrue) in the hot, new race for private-sector ascendency over outer space. Not bad for a town where the only other claim to fame is the summertime Stan Rogers Folk Festival.
But that still raises the question: Why now and why, on Earth, here?
“I used to get that a lot,” the budding astropreneur says by phone during one of his frequent business trips. “Consider the old adage: location, location, location. I started several years ago by doing a study that looked at 14 potential venues —from Chiapas in Mexico to Newfoundland and Churchill, Manitoba; from Alaska to California and Virginia. And of all of them, Canso fulfills every criterion I had outlined.”
The coastal village’s remoteness (it faces the ocean on three sides, and only one road in and out connects it to civilization) is its greatest advantage. It’s an ideal spot, he explains, for ensuring optimal rocket trajectories and safeguarding people along the seaboard from the statistically minuscule risk of falling debris.
It’s surrounded by hundreds of hectares of leasable, publicly owned wilderness, some of which would be cost-effectively handy when the time comes to install launch pads, buildings, roads, power lines, and sewer systems. And despite its relative seclusion, Canso is relatively near major entrepôts such as Halifax’s airport and the Mulgrave Marine Terminal, both of which would be essential to the timely delivery of launch vehicles and associated equipment.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, local support for the scheme seems to be growing. “You can’t do a damn thing without a community that stands solidly behind you,” Matier says.
Vernon Pitts, warden of the Municipality of Guysborough (which governs Canso) echoed the attitude of many area residents last summer when he declared in a letter to then-Nova Scotia Environment Minister Margaret Miller, “We look forward to . . .this project and encourage its expeditious review and approval. [It] has the potential to provide significant benefits to a region that has been greatly impacted by the collapse of the cod fishery in the 1990s.”
If there is something poignant about this sentiment, there’s also something concrete to it. This is not Matier’s first rodeo in the high frontier. As he told the House of Commons Finance Committee last fall, apart from his experience at NASA, “I have been an independent consultant working directly with the U.S. commercial space industry on building and licensing spaceports and working with launch vehicle operators from around the world.”
The Canso operation would reprise that approach by managing the lift-offs of as many as eight, medium-range orbital rockets a year, plus booking and processing the payloads of satellite providers. MLS would make its money as an “integrator” or middleman, charging fees for the services it renders.
As for the commercial marketplace’s appetite, Matier isn’t worried. He points to research by the Space Foundation, an unaffiliated think tank based in Colorado Springs, and others, which stipulate that revenues from the “global space economy” now approach $350 billion US annually. That represents yearly growth of about 15% since 2004, with most of the expansion having occurred after NASA retired the Space Shuttles in 2011.
The launch segment of the industry is currently struggling to meet burgeoning demand for mid-range rocket systems and operations. These are the work horses that provide frequent and cheap access to near-Earth orbit, which is crucial to modestly sized satellites designed to collect real-time, up-to-date information on just about everything. . .well. . . under the sun: From the layout of municipal street grids to the condition of residential roof tiles.
Into all of this, Matier expects, MLS and, of course, Canso will step. He’s loath to predict economic returns to his own company, but he has no problem outlining the potential boons to the town. “Our employment is probably going to be in the neighbourhood of 40 or 50 people,” he says. “So that would be plumbers, pipefitters, instrumentation technicians, and the like. They are the backbone of any facility like this. We will also have 24-7, 365 security services, as well as emergency response capabilities.”
He added in a recent email updating the project’s progress: “The community support has been great. They collected about 750 signatures in a petition in Canso, Hazel Hill and Little Dover, and it was tabled by MLA Hines [Guysborough-Eastern Shore-Tracadie] … before the legislature rose.”
Even so, not everyone in the province is sold. Following an initial assessment last July, Environment Minister Miller wrote back: “During the EA review, concerns were raised regarding the potential impacts of the project on: water resources, soil, air quality, noise, flora and fauna, fish and fish habitat, protected areas and parks, human health and contingency planning.
These concerns came up through public and Mi’kmaq submissions, plus submissions by Nova Scotia Environment, Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry, Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Health Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Department of National Defence.”
According to a CBC news report at the time, “In one of the 25 letters received, an Environment Department staffer wrote any spill of hazardous material from the site ‘would destroy the impacted ecosystems with no chance of recovery for the next several hundred years.’”
Another critic, writing in the opinion pages of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, went further, calling into question MLS’s decision to manage rockets that use the propellant Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), a known carcinogen.
“A launch failure at Canso would not in itself be of great concern—except for those 10 tonnes of UDMH within the upper stage [of the rocket],” British Columbia political scientist Michael Byers wrote. “The last UDMH-fuelled rocket launched from the United States was in 2005. European and Japanese launch providers have also switched to non-toxic fuels. Even China and Russia are replacing their UDMH-fuelled rockets with more modern, non-toxic alternatives.”
Matier says he addressed all concerns, dealing with each in a brick-sized tome he filed with the Environment Department in March. Here, for example, is only part of that 475-page document’s dissertation on UDMH: “The effect of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine on the human body is irritation of the mucous membranes of the eyes, respiratory tract and lungs, damage to the central nervous system, and damage to the digestive tract. Concentrations of 240 milligrams per cubic metres (mg/m3) is considered human-tolerated during exposures up to 10 minutes, and concentrations up to 120 mg/m3 for 30 minutes.”
Nevertheless, the report adds, “propellant spills would occur only in the event of malfunction of ground support equipment and/or personnel errors.” In the worst case, “the procedure of collection and neutralization in combination with personal protective equipment allows quick elimination of the spill with minimal risk of acute and chronic exposures.”
Even so, Matier assures, the probability of such an accident is vanishingly small. “Look,” he says, “we list 50 different launch pads in a dozen countries that still use UDMH, and the reason they do is that there is simply no replacement for it at this point in the technology. A forest fire is pretty scary, too. But that doesn’t mean we stop cooking or using our fireplaces. It all comes down to engineering controls. And that’s what I’ve done with my time for a whole career.”
For now, the provincial government seems to concur, although it requires MLS to reimburse Nova Scotia Environment as much as $100,000 a year for the public costs of monitoring its compliance. Says Matier in an email: “My. . .team was surprised [by this], but to me it is a measure of the uncertainty of them of embracing Canada’s first orbital satellite launch facility. It seems prudent and once we are up and operating, they should find that it might not be needed. We are or will produce almost everything they’ve asked for in the normal planning, design, development and operation of the launch site.”
For the time being, the oft-travelling engineer will spend most of his time filling out forms, answering questions, deflecting verbal barbs, and issuing occasional bromides to the bureaucrats and elected officials who hold the virtual launch codes of his ambitious undertaking. “We are now moving to complete the land lease application with Lands and Forestry as efficiently as possible,” he reports.
Sometimes, though, he does afford himself a few moments to imagine that bright, sunny day in the near future when he will watch, from tiny Canso town, the first rocket ship ever to launch into the great, wide open of Canada’s craggy, eastern shoreline.
Originally published in Halifax Magazine, June 27, 2019