Before Mojave There Was A Subarctic Spaceport in Canada

Some Canadians tried to build a spaceport in the subarctic (it didn't work out too well).

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Sep 25 2014, 11:30am

What's left of the abandoned Canadian spaceport. Image: Martin Lopatka/Flickr

At one point the Mojave Air and Space Port—the first licensed civilian spaceport in the US—wasn't the only possible North American spaceport around. No, the desert-located celestial port had a rival. And instead of mirages and sweltering heat, this alternative spaceport location was in the Canadian subarctic. 

In the 1990s, one of the world's first commercial spaceports was nearly built in a remote Northern Canadian town at the edge of the Arctic tundra near Hudson Bay—until a lack of funding quite literally kept plans from getting off the ground.

Akjuit Aerospace Inc. was founded in 1992 to develop "the world's first international commercial polar spaceport" in Churchill, Manitoba, according to mostly forgotten marketing materials still available online. The plan was to launch orbital and sub-orbital payloads from a variety of different-sized vehicles for private sector and government customers alike, all from a location "ideally suited for polar and high inclination orbital launches," wrote then-president and CEO, Siobhan Mullen.

Images from the company brochure.

For decades, that location was known as the Churchill Rocket Research Range, or Fort Churchill, a national historic site that had been used since the 1950s as a launchpad for sounding rockets, atmospheric research, survival trips, and army research until it was closed in 1981. According to the Canadian Space Agency, "more than 3,500 suborbital flights were launched from the site."

In the early 1990s, Mullen and Akjuit Aerospace hatched a plan to give the facility a new lease of life by providing "complete, turn-key services to non-military, commercial space customers" before the start of the new millennium. The company signed a 30-year lease for the old Churchill rocket test site in 1994, then put together a technical team of 21 firms led by the American aerospace and defence contractor Raytheon. 

the world's first international commercial polar spaceport

Ground was broken in July that year, and initial operational capability for orbital launch vehicles was expected by the middle of 1996. Some of Fort Churchill's pre-existing facilities would be refurbished, new infrastructure built, and a functioning SpacePort Canada would have a launch tower, vehicle assembly and payload processing facility, and mission control center.

The company's business case was based on "a general consensus of industry forecasters" that demand for small satellites was about to increase dramatically worldwide. Industries were beginning to move towards smaller, less costly hardware, which didn't necessarily require an equatorial launchpad or geosynchronous orbit. Akjuit Aerospace wanted to position itself as an early leader in that space (pun intended).

SpacePort Canada would specialize in offering direct path flights over the North Pole and enabling payloads to be placed in sun-synchronized orbits (orbits where a craft always remains in the lighted hemisphere). Its clients, Mullen told the University of Pennsylvania's alumni magazine in 1998, were "companies involved in data communications, multimedia communications and voice communications worldwide." 

And while most other launch sites at the time were still "government-owned and operated and launch only their own countries' vehicles," according to Mullen, her company had partnered with Russia to re-purpose the country's former Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) into vehicles it would launch from Churchill.

At least on paper, the project had all the makings of a success story. But money was always a problem—and exactly how much the project needed to succeed, and how much it made, is unclear. Around $100-300 million is a frequently cited cost in online materials from the period. If that's indeed the case, the company didn't even get close. 

According to the Western Producer in May of 1998, "The company raised more than $8.5 million from Churchill residents, its technical team and other investors in Manitoba and Canada." Mullen is quoted in the University of Pennsylvania's alumni magazine the previous month as saying her team had raised just nearly $22 million overall.

By then, SpacePort Canada's first estimated commercial launch had been pushed back numerous times—now pegged for the year 2000. The company did finally manage to launch a sounding rocket on April 28, 1998 as a test for the Canadian Space Agency, but that fleeting success would not last.

Just two weeks later, the company announced in a press release, according to Nunavut Edition Headline News, that "Although extensive progress was made by Akjuit in the orbital launch service market [and] the small satellite industry, the anticipated major customer base for SpacePort Canada, continued to delay launch decisions." As a result, Akjuit was "unable to secure additional interim financing to sustain operations until negotiations with potential clients in Europe and the US are concluded."

Ultimately, Akjuit Aerospace, and thus SpacePort Canada, shut down that year.

The company knew from the start their loose hold on the burgeoning spaceport market was precarious. In one document, the company's executives wrote that there was "unlikely to be room for more than one successful commercial spaceport in the near future, and almost certainly no room for two within North America even over the medium to longer term," should Akjuit not move quickly.

And indeed, that's exactly what happened. If it's a commercial, private-sector spaceport you want, Mojave Air and Space Port is the only game in town. And Fort Churchill—according to the Canadian Space Agency circa 2004, anyhow—is "practically deserted."