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Sheboygan Municipal Auditorium and Armory
Sheboygan’s Municipal Auditorium and Armory will be the future home of the Great Lakes Aerospace Science & Education Center, the first step towards a possible future spaceport on the shores of Lake Michigan. (credit: E. Hedman)

Bratwurst and cheeseheads and… rocket ships?

For people familiar with Sheboygan, Wisconsin, space launches are not the first thing that comes to mind. In America’s Dairyland, the Sheboygan area is known for great bratwurst (I can personally attest to that), quality plumbing fixtures with “The Bold Look”, world-class golf courses that include Black Wolf Run and Whistling Straights (the home of the 2005 PGA Championship), and a beautiful shoreline and harbor on Lake Michigan. Neither the city of Sheboygan nor the state of Wisconsin, with the possible exception of the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, are known for being a hotbed of aerospace activity. So why would Sheboygan become a site for suborbital tourist flights? I went to Sheboygan to meet the people behind the Sheboygan Spaceport project to find out why. I met with James A. Testwuide, a member of the Sheboygan Development Corporation board, and State Senator Joe Leibham of Sheboygan at the Sheboygan Armory, the future site of the Great Lakes Aerospace Science & Education Center at Spaceport Sheboygan.

Sheboygan has one feature that is unique in the Midwest. Just to the east of Sheboygan, out over Lake Michigan, is a large area of restricted airspace that makes it suitable for space launches. The airspace is free of regular airline traffic and is used for training by Air National Guard units. Being over a very large lake, it has a huge area for debris to fall in case of an accident without risking many people. The risk, while low, is not zero because of boating and commercial shipping on the lake. The risk to the public is probably the lowest of any area in the Midwest.

Just to the east of Sheboygan, out over Lake Michigan, is a large area of restricted airspace that makes it suitable for space launches.

The first part of the Sheboygan Spaceport project is the Great Lakes Aerospace Science & Education Center (GLASEC), an educational center focusing on space exploration. The Sheboygan Development Corporation has put together plans for remodeling the historic Municipal Auditorium and Armory. The plans include adding an IMAX theater/planetarium, an astronaut hall of fame, space exhibits, and related exhibits. Focusing heavily on education, the center will offer space mission simulations that include a mission control center and flight simulators. It will also be home for the Rockets for Schools program. The Sheboygan Development Corporation developed a promotional video about GLASEC, featuring retired astronaut Mark Lee, a Wisconsin native. A 3-D virtual tour of the proposed facility can be found at www.spaceportsheboygan.com.

The Armory is an interesting building with quite a history. Built in 1941, it was the home of the Sheboygan Redskins professional basketball team that was in the NBA for one season (1949–50) before the franchise folded. Red Auerbach, the legendary coach of the Boston Celtics, hated the place. It was also, until a few years ago, where the Sheboygan high schools played their basketball games. It is in outstanding condition with no significant structural problems.

I was given a tour of the building with an explanation of what would go where. They have a fairly detailed plan of what they want to build. The three main goals of the GLASEC, taken directly from their promotional literature are as follows:

  • Advance educational opportunity in the Midwest, specifically in the fields of mathematics, science, engineering, robotics, and aerospace;
  • Expand the State of Wisconsin’s economic position in the field of aerospace technology and commercial space travel;
  • Develop further entertainment and tourism opportunity in Wisconsin.

The long-term goal is to actually offer commercial suborbital space tourism flights from Sheboygan. The state of Wisconsin passed legislation in 2006 creating the Wisconsin Aerospace Authority. The WAA’s mission is to develop a spaceport in Sheboygan.

I asked Senator Leibham and James Testwuide how they came up with the idea for a spaceport. They told me that idea was spawned when George French of Rocketplane Kistler looked into the possibility of launching in the area because of the several thousand square miles of restricted airspace just offshore in Lake Michigan. The idea grew from this contact.

Two years ago at the EAA convention in Oshkosh I asked Mike Melvill, one of the pilots of SpaceShipOne, if they had considered space launches from Oshkosh. He told me that they had looked into it, but it was impractical because of the enormous amount of restricted airspace that would be required. Being close to Chicago, it would be impossible to divert commercial traffic for the time they need. Sheboygan doesn’t have that problem. The answer might be a short trip to the east.

Several states are promoting building spaceports, but likely only some of them will succeed. I asked Leibham and Testwuide why they think they can create a successful spaceport in Sheboygan. They told me that with the price of the upcoming flights, it would for now be mostly the well-to-do that could afford the trips. These people would for the most part want a complete high-end experience to go along with the flight. Sheboygan has many of these extras in close proximity. The area has some of the best resorts and golf courses in the United States. A few miles away in Elkhart Lake is the Road America race course. Sport fishing on Lake Michigan for trout, salmon, and other prized game fish is always an interesting activity. A short drive to the west is Oshkosh and the home of the Experimental Aircraft Association. The area already draws the type of people that may be interested and can afford the experience. The other ingredient, in my personal opinion, is that the idea needs a person or group behind the idea as a relentless driving force.

If this eventually leads to a true spaceport, the Sheboygan area and Wisconsin will get a significant economic kick and may someday be known for more than just bratwurst and cheeseheads.

Actual launches into space for tourism purposes won’t happen in the near future. The idea is to eventually have launches using horizontal takeoff vehicles. There are no plans for vertical launches. The facilities, though, are not yet in place for even any runway-based vehicles. The runway at the Sheboygan County Airport would have to be extended to handle vehicles like Rocketplane’s modified Learjet or Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipTwo. Infrastructure to support the flight vehicles would also have to be put in place. They currently do not have any firm commitments from any company planning to provide launch services to offer any flights in the Sheboygan area.

The first step of the project is to convert the old armory into the Great Lakes Aerospace Science & Education Center. The plans are impressive for this first bold step. The team seems to be in place to push this step through to fruition. Whether or not further steps are taken that lead to space launches, the GLASEC has the potential to provide an educational experience that students won’t quickly forget. If this eventually leads to a true spaceport, the Sheboygan area and Wisconsin will get a significant economic kick and may someday be known for more than just bratwurst and cheeseheads.


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