Sheboygan wants to be big cheese in space
Wisconsin town sets sights on strange new world of astro-tourism
By Tim Jones
Chicago Tribune national correspondent
January 29, 2006
SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- Some people, as Robert Kennedy often said, are
content to look at the world and ask why.
But in Sheboygan, where untold thousands of tons of sausage have been
crammed into sheep casings, some yearn for a life beyond the smoky
barbecue haze of the "Bratwurst Capital of the World." So they look to
the heavens and ask why not?
Why not make Sheboygan a launch pad to outer space?
Why let the legendary Cape Canaveral be the nation's tourist magnet for
most things space when Sheboygan could just as easily be the Midwest
space research center and 21st Century catapult, hurling rockets and
vaulting adventurous people into the wild black yonder?
That's the plan Sheboygan officials envision. Build on an existing
annual rocketry event on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Attract
millions of the curious from surrounding states by converting a hulking
World War II-vintage armory into a space research center and build a
planetarium next door. And then, with an infusion of private and public
money, cash in on the next new frontier--commercial tourism that would
carry small groups of people in rocket jet vehicles for half-hour,
quarter million-dollar, suborbital rides into space.
It's tempting to dismiss "Spaceport Sheboygan," as it is called, as
another hokey Wisconsin tourist gimmick in a state where communities
boast of enormous plastic cows, a gigantic penny and the world's biggest
fiberglass fish (143 feet long). Just about an hour north of here, in
tiny Poland, a farmer last year turned a 42-foot-long fuel tank on its
head and put a metal platform on top, making it the state's only "U.F.O.
"We're Not the Only Ones," reads the sign beneath Poland's metal welcome
mat for little green people from far away.
Might not be so goofy
Despite predictable jokes about sending brat-shaped, mustard-slathered
rockets into space, the Sheboygan proposal might not be goofy at all. In
fact, communities in Florida, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, California,
Alaska and several other states are also vying for a piece of the
evolving space tourism business, and they have assembled armies of
lawyers, financiers, deep-pocketed CEOs and politicians to prime the
Along Lake Michigan, Jim Testwuide, a local businessman involved in the
Wisconsin proposal, said, "It's not just five sod-lifters from
Sheboygan" with a big idea.
"We feel it has legs to take off," Testwuide said.
Here's why. Sheboygan has been firing small rockets into the
atmosphere--some as high as 35 miles--for a decade, as part of the
popular Rockets for Schools program. The area boasts a massive block of
restricted airspace over Lake Michigan, granted by the government more
than a half-century ago for military munitions testing. This
over-the-water no-fly zone provides an ideal safety buffer for vertical
rocket and horizontal jet plane space launches. The Federal Aviation
Administration has already granted Sheboygan authorization for
suborbital flights, and horizontal launches would fit neatly into the
"Nobody's talking about launching gigantic missiles off," Testwuide
said, trying to dispel the image of a northern Cape Canaveral. "We're
talking space planes, not rockets."
Former astronauts, including James Lovell, have endorsed the Spaceport
Sheboygan proposal. Plenty of area politicians have joined the why-not
chorus. The Wisconsin Legislature is considering a measure ("out of this
world," claimed the bill's sponsor) to create a state aerospace
authority, which could sell up to $100 million in bonds to purchase
yet-to-be-identified land and build a launch facility.
Sheboygan is the only proposed Midwestern site, prompting Lovell to call
it "a rare opportunity to create this compelling regional destination."
Supporters downplay concerns about cold weather and emphasize that the
tourist ventures would involve planes, not rockets, that take off from
airport-like runways. At an altitude of about 35,000 feet, a rocket
plane attached to the jet and carrying tourists would detach and zoom to
an altitude of perhaps 60 miles. Then it would return for a landing at
the launch site.
In the broader context of old cities reinventing themselves--Pittsburgh
moving from big steel to high-tech, and Raleigh, N.C., from textiles and
tobacco to technology and education--Sheboygan is but one player on a
long list of communities trying to plan for the future. By any measure,
though, Spaceport Sheboygan is quite a leap, as it is for most other
communities vying for the pole position in the risky and expensive
commercial space race.
But it's doable, supporters insist. And it is, they add, an imperative
with a familiar ring to it. Just as the Soviets took the lead in the
space race in the 1950s and early '60s, the Russians currently own the
nascent market for space tourism.
"There has been a pent-up demand for space for a long time," said George
French, president of Rocketplane Ltd. Inc., an Oklahoma-based company
that is building a reusable spaceship, similar to a private jet with a
"The Baby Boomers who grew up on `2001: A Space Odyssey' expected that
they would be able to fly [into space]. It isn't going to happen unless
states and the private sector do something," French said.
Some are moving faster than others. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush asked state
lawmakers this month to commit $55 million in next year's budget to
attract new space ventures to Florida. Bush is also pushing the
development of a commercial spaceport, which would operate much like a
commercial service airport.
New Mexico last month committed to spending about $130 million--roughly
half the cost of construction--to build a desert launch facility that
would be used by British entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic
airline. Sightseeing spaceflights from the site near the White Sands
Missile Range are scheduled to begin in late 2008, although there is
some political resistance to using state money for the launch site while
the state has other demands.
Groundbreaking next winter
Sheboygan is not that far down the development road. The city plans a
groundbreaking for the proposed space center next winter, with a
targeted opening date of March 2008. Building a launch site for
commercial space travel may be years down the road because private and
public financing, public support and political will to endorse it are
And the trips are, to say the least, pricey--anywhere from $200,000 to
$350,000 for an adventure that lasts about as long as America's first
astronaut in space, Alan Shepard, took for his inaugural suborbital leap
"It's absolutely feasible to have a spaceport anywhere there is interest
and where economically it makes sense to do it," said Jim Banke, vice
president of Florida operations for the Space Foundation, a Colorado
Springs-based non-profit advocate for the space industry.
"But it has to make economic sense," Banke said
To which Testwuide says, why not?
"We're going to bring Sheboygan out of the oompah band stage," he said.
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