The U.P. was, and continues to be, a player in space

In a fairly isolated cove along the top of the Keweenaw Peninsula lies what’s left of the launching pad for the Keweenaw Rocket Range. Rockets were launched from the site from 1964 to 1971 for atmospheric and weather testing. However, In 1971, two rockets were launched from the site that reached into space. (Photos by Elizabeth Fust)

By Elizabeth Fust
The remote wilderness of the Upper Peninsula has always lent itself to exploration and discovery. One of the more intrepid explorations to occur in the U.P. is barely noted in history books, but the effort is commemorated by a marble slab deep in the woods at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.  Chipped and battered by the weather and violence of Lake Superior, the slab reads, “The Keweenaw Rocket Range—The State of Michigan established a rocket range on this site which was used from 1964-1971. Michigan’s first rocket to enter space was launched from this site on Jan. 29, 1971.”
The Space Age was just beginning when in 1962 University of Michigan officials suggested that the shore of Lake Superior would be a suitable location for a rocket range to acquire meteorological data. Due to the remoteness of the location—10 miles from the nearest town, Copper Harbor, and surrounded by stretches of open water—the site was well suited for launching rockets to gather data, testing weapons systems, or conducting environmental or atmospheric tests and experiments. Lake Superior was the intended impact zone as the rockets were typically not meant to be reclaimed. The only potential impediments to the project were watercraft traffic and the lack of electricity or phone service at the site. A report of all these considerations was put together and submitted to NASA. With NASA’s approval and assistance, the Keweenaw Rocket Range was created and it joined the Meteorological Rocket Network, a system of similar rocket sites established to gather atmospheric data.
The first launches in the Keweenaw were in 1964. Five small rockets were launched to gather data to fill a gap in the meteorological network, which was conducting tests to determine wind temperature patterns across the Northern Hemisphere. When winter crept over the Upper Peninsula, the launcher was moved to another range while the Keweenaw Range was shut down for the winter. In 1965, another project was started at the range, Project WEBROCK–an acronym for Weather Buoy Rockets. This initiative tested the feasibility of launching meteorological rockets from remote ocean platforms. Despite the harsh winter conditions, which occasionally postponed tests, this project ran year-round until 1967. The results were favorable and led to further testing at the site, which became project NOMAD from 1968 to 1969. A NOMAD buoy was towed off Keweenaw point and served as a launch pad for small meteorological rockets.

A marble slab at the site commemorates the Keweenaw Rocket Range.

According to a Wikipedia entry, three University of Michigan professors, two Michigan Technological University professors and two employees from the White Sands missile range were the minimum crew required for the missile range.
After this project came one of the most noted accomplishments at the range. In 1971, two Nike-Apache rockets, the largest to be launched from the range, were fired 100 miles into the stratosphere to gather data on the warming of the upper atmosphere in the winter. Thus flew the first rocket from Michigan to enter space. These two-stage rockets were 27 feet tall.
Sean Potter, NASA media relations specialist, shared the following notes from NASA’s recording of the Nike Apache project: “Jan. 29, 1970: Nike-Apache rocket science – Ionospheric Physics Experimenter – Aikins from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (no longer is there) – Successful mission. Jan. 31, 1970: Nike-Apache rocket science – Ionospheric physics Experimenter – Goldberg from the Goddard Space Flight Center (no longer is there) – Successful mission.”
Despite the success of all projects at the range, the Nike-Apache rockets were the last rockets to fly from the Keweenaw. Funding ran out and the land became state property. The plaque was installed on the concrete pad used for the launch equipment and not much else is left to distinguish the site. However, the site also marks the location of a peaceful pebble beach for those who make the trek.
The site was originally chosen for its all-season accessibility, and adventurers can still reach the spot year-round, according to Sam Raymond, co-owner of the Keweenaw Adventure Company in Copper Harbor. “The High Rock Bay Road is groomed for snowmobiles and that is part of the snowmobile trail system,” Sam says. “There is currently a human-powered trail that goes all the way from Copper Harbor to the rocket launch site.”
This is the Keweenaw Point Trail. Trail maps can be purchased at the Keweenaw Adventure Company on the way to the site. Or those interested can follow these directions to get there:
Start at the end of the road, (though technically this “end of the road” is the beginning of US 41, located just east of Copper Harbor) which becomes Mandan Road. Most vehicles can traverse this dirt two-track under good conditions, but it gets rougher as it goes. Five miles down, another road splits off, an old logging road, High Rock Road. All wheel drive vehicles can make the drive with some care. There are few places along the 2.5 miles to pull off for an oncoming vehicle. Four wheelers can make this trip without problem. Mountain bikers may find this seasonal road with its hills and rocky terrain equivalent to a moderate mountain biking trail. After this stretch, a fork in the road allows adventurers to go right to High Rock Bay, or choose the left fork which leads to the rocket range where visitors are greeted by the plaque set against the backdrop of Lake Superior, Manitou Island and its lighthouse framing the scene.
Though the Keweenaw Rocket Range has been left behind, the Space Age continues and the U.P. is again in the spotlight for aerospace activities. At the end of June, a nanosatellite designed by Michigan Tech students was successfully launched into space. Its purpose is to improve accuracy in tracking the thousands of natural (meteoroids) and manmade objects and debris that orbit the earth.
Also, the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) is planning to build a major rocket/satellite launching facility somewhere in the state. Two of the handful of sites the organization is considering for this “spaceport” are located in the Upper Peninsula: Sawyer in Marquette County and Kincheloe in Chippewa County. It is hoped that MAMA will announce its selection during its 2019 Space Symposium, which will be held in Grand Rapids Sept. 9 and 10.
It seems the U.P. still has much to offer for exploring the heavens.

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