COPPER HARBOR, MI – At the end of a secluded trail on the tip of Michigan’s northernmost peninsula, there is a hidden remnant of the state’s forgotten ties to the Space Age.
No highway will take you there. Many of the roads won’t be paved. But if you’re looking for an adventure tucked within the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you’ll come across a place where rockets once flew.
Known today as the Keweenaw Rocket Range, the isolated launch pad once served as home base for a joint research project between the University of Michigan and NASA.
“With lightning speed, the second of the University of Michigan rocket firings is shown within a fraction of a second timing,” an article published by the Daily Mining Gazette On Dec. 8, 1965 reads. “…Lake Superior was calm with only a gentle lapping of the waves against the shoreline of rocks, pebbles and stray driftwood.”
Mostly forgotten today, “sounding” rockets of many sizes were launched from the site with the goal of collecting meteorological data beginning in 1964, five years before U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
It was one of several locations scattered throughout the United States known as the Meteorological Rocket Network. The site was used for data-gathering purposes until 1971.
The Keweenaw’s small, abandoned site won’t rival the Kennedy Space Center or the International Space Station in grandeur or historic importance, but it does serve as a vital reminder of a portion of Michigan’s role in the early days of NASA’s space program.
“The fantastic thing about the sounding rockets is that they could reach the edge of space with a single mission,” rocketry author Peter Alway said in an article logged in Michigan Tech University archives.
“On the other hand, the Apollo manned space mission was so huge and involved millions of people, most of whom didn’t know much about the operation beyond their narrow technical part. With the research rocket use that was done in the U.P., it was understandable.”
According to an initial report compiled by Harold Allen, the project’s supervisor, the idea to build a rocket range on the south shore of Lake Superior was suggested as early as 1962.
It was a desirable location due to the region’s low population density and positioning near the center of the North American land mass – a fact important for measurements and tests requiring a mid-latitude site away from marine influences.
The Keweenaw Peninsula was also ideal because small and medium-sized rockets could be launched year-round. Researchers initially were concerned that ship traffic on Lake Superior and the lack of power and telephones there could be potential obstacles, but in the end the positives of the site outweighed those wrinkles.
The rocky outcrop offers majestic views of Lake Superior and Manitou Island located just miles offshore.
The launch facility was funded by a $52,850 grant provided by what was then known as the Michigan Department of Economic Expansion. Goodman Lumber Division of Calumet and Hecla. Inc. donated 203 acres of land to U of M for the project.
Site prep, access roads and equipment transportation was arranged by the Keweenaw County Highway Commission.
A variety of rockets, including smaller ones known as Mighty Mouse rockets, Arcas and Nike Apache rockets were provided by a variety of sources, including the United States Weather Bureau. U.S. Navy and NASA. A rocket launcher was loaned by the White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico.
A van-mounted radiosonde, power generator and 75-foot telescoping tower was also loaned by the U.S. Army. Staff onsite include personnel from U of M, Michigan Tech and White Sands under the direction of Allen.
A waiver of Part 45 of Federal Air Regulations authorized launches on three specified days each week during daylight hours in clear weather.
ROCKETS FILL THE AIR
About 50 Mighty Mouse rockets were launched off a floating buoy between the on-land rocket site and ManitoIsland in the early days of the project. It grew from there.
According to historian Glen Swanson, author of a detailed article titled “Spaceport Michigan: When Rockets Flew from the Great Lakes State,” Michigan’s first steps toward the Space Age occurred at 7:07 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1964 when an Arcas rocket weighing 76 pounds was launched toward the sky over Lake Superior.
More Arcas rockets, each about 6 feet in size, followed. They were launched in 10-day intervals in August and September 1964. Each measured temperature, air pressure, density and wind velocity until impact. And not always without incident.
“We had a fairly good north wind during one of our Arcas launches,” Allen said, according to the article published by Swanson. “One of the parachutes drifted ashore just west of Marquette. Someone was driving along the road and saw this parachute float past heading into the woods.”
“He thought ‘My God. somebody had to bail out of an airplane’. So he called the police. They got out there and had a big gang search for the parachute. They finally found it stuck in a tree. They cut the whole tree down and brought the thing back to us. We could have used it again if we wanted to.”
NASA AND THE NIKE-APACHE ROCKETS
The site was used sporadically for several purposes from 1965 to 1969, including Project WEBROC in 1965 and 1966. The goal was to set up a network of permanently-anchored buoys in remote water areas to obtain weather information.
Renewed life came in 1970 when NASA personnel from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland approached Allen and the team with the idea of launching larger Nike Apache rockets from the site.
Each Apache stood more than 28 feet tall and weighed roughly 1,700 pounds, according to Swanson. Each Nike Apache could soar more than 100 miles into the air, measuring magnetic storms caused by solar flares.
It’s payload collection consisted of stuff from your chemistry and physics books, including electron density, positive ion composition and distribution, energetic electron precipitation, solar X-rays and Lyman Alpha flux.
Getting the rockets into the air proved to be difficult. The firing of the two Nike-Apaches were supposed to take place in the middle of December 1971. However, weeks of preparing the site for launch was followed by a severe winter storm, which delayed the launching of the large rockets for nearly a month.
After much deliberation and monitoring of the weather, the team eventually sent the rockets into the sky on Jan. 29 and Jan. 31, 1971, despite sketchy weather conditions and hesitation from the Goddard brass, which was reportedly furious when the launch took place.
“We went away and fired the damn rocket,” Allen said in Swanson’s article. “…”they (Goddard) flew off the handle. They were going to shoot everybody. After getting word back from data recovery that all the data was great and that everything was fine, they cooled down.”
“I guess it was all right,” Allen recalled them saying, “But don’t ever do it again.”
Those were the last flights for the Keweenaw Rocket Range. Lack of funding and interest from NASA and the difficulty of the isolated site in Michigan’s back-country eventually led to its abandonment.
“After the two successful Apache flights,” Allen said, according to Swanson’s article , “We had all of this junk scattered around under 6 feet of snow that had to be pulled up and taken back. It was well into February before we got everything shipped out of Copper Harbor. That was the end. We never got any more contracts.”
The land was given to Michigan Technological University, which hosted a ceremony to commemorate the rocket range decades later in 2000.
ETCHED IN HISTORY
Today, little remains of the site other than a memorial marker and a concrete pad with an iron rail in an arc shape attached to it that is inscribed with degree markings.
It’s but a small part of America’s space legacy. Reaching the site takes a whole lot of patience, tr