At 9:30 last Sunday morning, with the temperature around 6 degrees, I inched my way down a snow- and ice-covered main runway of the long-closed Loring Air Force Base in Limestone toward a clutch of vans and trucks, people and equipment preparing to launch a 20-foot, biofuel rocket.
Brunswick-based bluShift Aerospace, which developed both the fuel and the rocket, hopes this successful launch, preceded by two failed attempts earlier this year, will allow the company to begin working with other companies to launch nanosatellites – miniature satellites with a mass of fewer than 10 kilograms – largely used for communication and remote sensing.
The rocket also carried a payload that included atmospheric sensors developed by Falmouth High School students, product from a New Hampshire company testing material durability under launch stress, and a collection of Dutch stroopwafels from a company sending a humorous nod to its parent company in Amsterdam.
Loring AFB, which closed in 1994 after almost five decades as a critical defense base during the Cold War, is the perfect spot to test the viability of launching rockets with biofuels produced from agricultural byproducts – hay, manure, and other renewable commodities. The base is largely abandoned, and there are few homes nearby, especially in winter when few people, except for snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, are on site.
The scheduled 10 a.m. launch was delayed by cloud cover, which eventually broke, but technical problems, largely the result of low temperatures, also developed. In the first attempt, while there was flame at the bottom of the rocket, a valve failed to open and liquid oxidizer didn’t flow; 90 minutes later, a second attempt also failed, because the fuel had been drained during the first attempt, bluShift CEO Sascha Deri explained.
“Go get some lunch, and we’ll come back in an hour,” he advised.
After the break for lunch, and refueling the rocket, the sky cleared and the wind died, and Maine’s first rocket was launched and landed shortly after 3 p.m. to cheers from all present – especially Deri, who had never seen a rocket launch.
“It was spectacular, and the whole team was incredibly pleased,” said Betta Stothart, publicist for bluShift. “It was perfect! We had bluebird skies and no wind!”
On Monday morning Stothart was headed south, while Deri and the launch team were back to Loring’s enormous hangar, packing up the rocket, loading trailers, and hurrying to return to Brunswick before the expected big snowstorm hit the state and The County.
While the rocket didn’t reach space, the successful launch put bluShift in a better position to secure funding from investors for a larger rocket that could actually soar briefly into space and create some weightlessness for payloads it might carry.
There is some irony that bluShift’s venture connects the only two large air bases, Loring and Brunswick – both closed – in the state where the company is located. While the launch caused a lot of excitement in The County, which would welcome the company back, bluShift plans to have future launches off the coast because they can increase safety by launching over the ocean, Stothart said, perhaps even from a barge.
“(Deri) is really serious about making sure that no people, no part of the population is put at risk,” she said. “But Limestone is a great place to do business. We had everything we needed, and it is truly beautiful.”
Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former reporter for The Forecaster. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.