In Jonesport, a Lobstering Community Is Keeping an Aerospace Startup Grounded

bluShift Aerospace is readying cutting-edge biofuel-powered rockets. It just needs a launch site.

bluShift Aerospace is readying cutting-edge biofuel-powered rockets. It just needs a launch site.
By Jaed Coffin
From our February 2022 issue

Standing in his office, in a hangar on Brunswick’s former naval air base, Sascha Deri studied a nautical chart of an area a few hours up the coast. The waters around the 1,300-person, zero-traffic-lights town of Jonesport are dotted with scores of tiny, rocky islands. On the map, the islands looked like shards of shoreline tossed haphazardly into the sea, and around one of them, about a thumb’s width south of Main Street, Deri had drawn a circle.

Deri is the founder of bluShift Aerospace, and he had homed in on Water Island as the launch site for his suborbital and orbital rockets, Starless Rogue and Red Dwarf. The rockets burn what bluShift calls a “nearly carbon neutral” proprietary biofuel. Deri, a voluble 50-year-old whose salt-and-pepper hair swoops skyward, has bachelor’s degrees in physics and electrical engineering and developed the fuel from a substance he says can be found on “just about any farm around the world.” His aim is to start ferrying Rubik’s-cube-size nanosatellites into space as soon as possible. Small satellites have become a multibillion-dollar-a-year market, used for scientific, military, and commercial purposes, from observing natural disasters to measuring climate change to tracking paths of oil tankers for futures markets.

Water Island is especially attractive to Deri for a number of reasons. For starters, the island’s private owner is willing to lease it out. Also crucial is that the coastline’s southerly orientation would allow for putting satellites into polar orbit — ideal for mapping, communications, and other satellite functions — with a launch trajectory over open ocean rather than populated areas. Plus, Jonesport and neighboring Beals have long boatbuilding histories, and Deri hoped to tap into the local labor market of welders and machinists, as well as to hire fishermen to retrieve rocket parts that can be refurbished after they splash back down.

Following a successful test of a smaller, shorter-range rocket in northern Maine last winter, Deri attended three town meetings in Jonesport to pitch his plan, but they hadn’t gone well. The noise of launches was one point of concern among residents. In response, Deri pledged to launch no more than 32 times per year. Plus, he said, the sound would be no greater than the foghorn at Moose Peak Light, on nearby Mistake Island, and it would last for only six seconds each time — a total of three to five minutes of rocket noise annually.

The Red Dwarf rocket will be able to put satellites into orbit up to 450 miles above Earth’s surface.

The bigger issue, though, was fishing. For safety, waters around the island and along the flight path would have to be off-limits to boats during launches, and Jonesport is a lobstering town. So Deri proposed to only launch on Sundays, when the fisheries are closed, or in the evenings, once fishermen have finished hauling. Another worry was whether debris might hit fishing gear — parachutes getting tangled in trap lines, for instance. Deri promised to pay for repair or replacement in the event of any damage. Late last year, residents took up the matter at a specially convened town meeting. Unswayed, they voted to institute a six-month moratorium on the building of any aerospace facilities.

In a straw poll conducted around the same time, 146 local fishermen opposed bluShift operating in the area, while only seven supported the idea. “We picked pretty close to the worst time to do this,” Deri reflected. “You have COVID as an underlying base. You have the fiasco with the right whales and the federal government. You have the wind turbines scooping up what sounds like maybe a radius of a mile where they’re allowed to fish. Then the aquaculture businesses moving in. Then you have a crazy rocket company show up at your front door after all that?”

Meanwhile, in the hangar in Brunswick, progress continued. A large cylinder, two feet in diameter by nine feet long, lay on a workshop floor, threaded rods sticking out from each end. It would eventually serve as a combustion chamber for trying out bluShift’s new MAREVL engine — one engine can launch Starless Rogue, and it will take eight to launch Red Dwarf. As the winter sun began to fall, Deri drove down a muddy dirt road, through two locked gates, to a testing ground where he has a fuel laboratory in a shipping container, solar arrays, and a range of other equipment. An $800,000 crowdfunding campaign bankrolled work on the MAREVL engine and construction of the testing complex (a NASA small-business program and the Maine Technology Institute were among earlier sources of funding that helped the company get off the ground). If all goes well with the upcoming test, Deri said, he and his engineers will see a vivid orange flame erupt from the chamber.

A few dozen more trials would then still be in order, to dial in fuel and oxygen levels. Once bluShift successfully uses the engine to launch a rocket, it will be eligible to become a launch provider for NASA’s Flight Opportunities initiative, which helps developers of promising space technologies launch small satellites, at $300,000 to $550,000 a pop. But what bluShift still needs is a permanent launch site. Deri says he understands the hesitancy in Jonesport toward his plans — spaceflight and a small fishing town make for an unlikely pairing. He’s hopeful to change minds before the local aerospace ban is up for renewal, but he’s also looking for alternative locations, in Maine or elsewhere.

At a glance, bluShift’s Brunswick test site — a muddy clearing and a hulking bay made of car-size cinder blocks — doesn’t exactly look like the high-tech starting point for forays into outer space. Neither does the bald, battered, and remote outcrop that is Water Island. “I like to say that Maine is known for making ships over the ages,” Deri said. “It’s time for us to be known for making rocket ships.”