It sounds like a science fiction vision of David and Goliath: David’s sling is a high-tech centrifugal accelerator, designed to twirl a dart-like projectile at thousands of miles per hour before launching it. And Goliath is gravity itself.
A company called SpinLaunch hopes to build its centrifuge to hurl satellites into space from the Big Island — preferably in its southernmost district, Kau. The company wants the state of Hawaii to help it by issuing $25 million in special purpose revenue bonds — bonds sold to private investors — for which the state incurs no liability but charges no taxes on their interest.
A bill authorizing those bonds, Senate Bill 2703, passed its Senate committee hearings with only one dissenting vote, and appears to be flying through the House as well.
But the spaceport’s backers didn’t consult Kau’s people, or even its legislators. And Kau has often played the role of David, itself: in recent decades, the defiantly bucolic district’s residents have successfully defeated corporate plans for a mega-resort, a private prison and three other proposed spaceports. The district’s three state legislators all oppose this new spaceport, too.
Seventeen Big Island residents submitted written testimony against the bill during House committee hearings — but all had their testimony stamped “LATE.”
The bill’s main sponsors are Sen. Glen Wakai of Oahu and Rep. Cindy Evans of the Big Island.
When Wakai was in California for a legislative conference in October, he visited SpinLaunch’s headquarters in Sunnyvale and watched as a prototype “shot a projectile into a wall.” He said he was “impressed with their technology.”
Wakai said the company would power its launcher with solar cells on site. The only chemical fuel involved, he claimed, would be a small amount needed to position the satellite after it reached orbit.
Without having to carry its propellant, the projectile would be a fraction of the size of a conventional rocket. The company has said it could launch at a fraction of the cost and the pollution.
One possible impact of the launch could be the loud boom the projectile makes as it crosses the sound barriers.
The company would only say, “SpinLaunch is consulting industry experts to evaluate the technology noise impact.”
SpinLaunch officials would respond only to written questions — and frequently replied that the information was proprietary.
The company wouldn’t say, for instance, how many “g”s (a unit of force equal to the pull of earth’s gravity at ground level) would be exerted on the satellite during the launch process; how those g-forces would differ from those in a rocket launch; whether the company could launch a satellite designed for rockets, or how much electrical power and how many acres of solar cells would be required.
It would supply no figures on how much cheaper, less polluting or more energy efficient its system was than rockets — although techcrunch.com, quoting SpinLaunch founder and CEO Jonathan Yaney reported that the company aimed to charge around $500,000 per payload, as compared to millions for a rocket launch.
The company did say it required 10 acres for its launch site and a 2,000-acre buffer zone.
Rand Wheatland, a Kau resident with a physics degree who designed satellite modeling software for General Electric, has been pondering what’s known about the project.
Citing an airplane whose propeller tips rotated at supersonic speeds, making it the “the world’s noisiest plane,” Wheatland raised the possibility that in addition to the projectile’s exit bang, the rotating centrifuge itself could create a “buzz saw sonic boom.”
“If they have trouble at the launch, they won’t even have time to hit the self-destruct — and the debris would still be supersonic anyway,” he said. He suggested a buffer zone with a 25-mile radius.
Wakai told the Hawaii Tribune Heraldthat the centrifuge would accelerate its payload up to “5,000 miles per hour,” and the only chemical fuels needed would be for positional maneuvering after reaching orbit. But according to multiple websites, a satellite would have to be moving at over 17,000 mph to achieve even low earth orbit.
Wakai said that in addition to Kau, the company may consider siting the project at the “northern tip of the island” or on Molokai.
Initial reports had named Pohue Bay in Kau as the likely site, but after hearing from local kupuna, Wakai said he’d advised SpinLaunch to look elsewhere: “They understand that Pohue Bay is full of cultural and historic features and environmental issues that might be difficult for them to overcome. I was telling them that there might be possibilities between Ocean View and Milolii.”
The company wrote that once operational, the launch site would need 30 to 50 personnel and more than 50 percent could be local hires, including “technicians, electricians, machinists, airport operations, air traffic control, facility management and supporting roles.”
Some of those, such as air traffic controllers, probably would be recruits from outside Kau.
Wakai admitted he hadn’t consulted with Kau’s legislators about the bill: “That was my mistake. I figured that Cindy Evans would be talking to her counterparts.”
One Kau legislator, Russell Ruderman, was the lone dissenting vote during the Senate committee hearings. The other two, Sen. Josh Green and Rep. Richard Creagan, aren’t on the committees that heard the bill.
“I’m very tired of people who don’t live on the Big Island talking about putting things here and not talking about it with the community,” Ruderman said.
“Did they put up any notices in the community? Did they try at all to connect with the community? They (Kau residents) have rejected rocket launch facilities three times in the past. We don’t want it and we are resentful that things keep getting proposed for our community without talking to us.”
His “biggest concern” with the project was “the environmental impact and the impact on the community which has tried so hard to keep its character, which is healthy and clean and agriculturally oriented.”
Green, too, turned thumbs down on the project.
“I don’t feel that the people in Kau have been adequately briefed on this project. Big Island people want us to focus more on health care, affordable housing, drug treatment and homeless solutions,” he said.
Both Creagan and Ruderman expressed concerns about the unproven technology. No payload has ever entered orbit via anything but a rocket.
Creagan, a doctor and biologist who had worked with high-speed centrifuges while designing equipment for a vaccine company, shared some of Wheatland’s worries: “It’s not going to be easy to balance a centrifuge with an arm that long and a payload that large. … If they disintegrate at that kind of speed, you’d better have a strong containment area.”
Both Creagan and Ruderman suspect that even if the Legislature authorizes the bonds, they still won’t make it past the State Office of Budget and Finance’s vetting process given all the technical and financial unknowns that surround the project.
SpinLaunch will still face county zoning and permitting hearings — and local residents. The company has promised to schedule a meeting with Kau residents in mid-April.
If the community rejects the proposal, Wakai said, “Nobody is going to shove it down their throats. SpinLaunch will pick up and go someplace else.”
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Alan D. McNarie has been covering the Big Island's people and issues for various publications for over a quarter century. He's published two novels: "Yeshua" and "The Soul Keys." He lives in Volcano. Email Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org