Looking Back On Apollo 11 From Traverse City's Space Scene
By Luke Haase | July 19, 2019
Tomorrow (July 20) is the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing by NASA’s Apollo 11, so The Ticker took the opportunity to catch up with Mike Carey, chief strategy officer and founder of Atlas Space Operations, Traverse City’s newest and biggest aerospace company, providing ground communications to satellites orbiting above earth.
Carey served in the Air Force and has had close NASA ties for decades.
Ticker: So let’s go back 50 years. Where were you?
Carey: I was nine and living in Grosse Pointe Park. That was the era at school when you would take time out of class, roll in the TV, and watch the liftoffs. But not in July. I was out playing and my old man called me in and said, ‘You’ll want to watch this.’
Ticker: What happened? Why in your view did we basically abandon our space program after Apollo?
Carey: People got bored with the boom. NASA canceled two lunar missions that were actually already paid for except for the gas. Look at where we are today and reflect on where our thoughts were in the '60s. Then was the Cold War, and now we’re not the only one in the race and it’s not bilateral. But what is NASA’s role? What do they do? Who funds it? Manned or unmanned? Budget constraints. They’re precisely the same debates we’re having now.
Ticker: But why the sudden resurgence the past few years in space after a lull of so long?
Carey: Technology has allowed it to become more reachable again. Rocket development in the '60s was mostly about satellites for national security and nuclear warhead delivery. Defense purposes. But technology is really exactly why we conceived of this company 16 years ago. With the commercialization of satellites and human space flight, everyone was experiencing the clunkiness of the Cold War apparatus. My last job duty in the Air Force was to modernize the satellite control network, and they said no to all five ways we proposed. The military is risk averse, but for a reason, because they’re here to protect the American people; you can’t take risks. So the network was antiquated and the rocket ranges that are being used are beyond capacity…so Atlas will provide some of those services. And then the billionaires starting investing in space. They drove logistics and streamlined and made all sorts of cost savings.
Ticker: There’s so much going on in space now, between NASA and private companies and other countries…
Carey: Right, there are hundreds of companies. SpaceX, the biggest one, is flying boosters back from space and landing them, which is critical to a Mars mission, to land in a thin atmosphere, and takeoff again from there to get home. Blue Origin’s New Shepherd vehicle is manned space flight, for tourism and to expand the human experience. There’s also actually a company right now practicing in deserts how to robotically build with materials from the moon. How to make bricks from moon sand, which again will be critical as we go farther and build elsewhere; it saves so much [to not have to send everything up in a rocket]. Everybody is working on different parts of the puzzle. A company like Planet Labs is basically imaging the planet every day, so now we can track environmental changes like water levels, trees turning colors…and those satellites are the size of a loaf of bread.
And with our technology, we’re putting technology in the clouds so you don’t have to rely on hardware, so you won’t need people at a ground station that’s manned. We’ve automated that. And then of course the countries. The U.S. is number one by far, but then there’s Russia, China, Europe, India…and even Iran has plans to put astronauts on the moon.
Ticker: What about the talk of Michigan becoming a destination for aerospace? Is it real?
Carey: It’s not potential, it’s real real. The state authorized $2 million to survey and study for a space launch facility. A handful of states have already designated themselves as space states; Kentucky actually has a bigger budget than South Korea. And we have a phenomenal history of innovation here, with automotive, furniture, transportation, Maytag, Dow Chemical…the engineering from here is amazing. And we’re great in natural resources, too; we don't really burn or shake. So why not here?
Ticker: So could Traverse City be in the running for a rocket launch site?
Carey: No, not here. The most important consideration is not launching over a lot of people. You launch from here and you instantly overfly where people are. Oscoda is one possibility; so is the northern part of the U.P. The thumb perhaps.
Ticker: Have you ever been to space? Or want to go?
Carey: No. I mean, I would, but I don’t have the money for that.
Ticker: How much is it these days?
Carey: Virgin [Galactic] charges $250,000.