Sascha Deri, CEO and founder of bluShift Aerospace, at its office at the Brunswick Executive Airport. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Space entrepreneurs tend to have big checkbooks and even bigger egos. Whether it’s Elon Musk’s Space X, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, I get the feeling that their extraterrestrial exploits are as much about carving their names in history as breaking the shackles of Earth’s gravity.

Not so with Sascha Deri.

“I remember when I was 7 years old, one of my first experiments was clipping off the tops of match heads and making these tubes out of aluminum paper by wrapping them around pencil heads and stuffing the match heads in there,” Deri told me. “Then having this long tube of match heads and lighting it on fire and seeing the thing go shooting across the table. I don’t know how my parents let me do it. They knew I was doing it – they were witnessing it!”

As he told me this, we were climbing into his 2003 Toyota pickup outside the office and fabrication shop of bluShift Aerospace, Deri’s fledgling space rocket enterprise at Brunswick Landing. Our nearby destination: the company’s test firing site by the runway of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, now the Brunswick Executive Airport.

There, in a remote area once used to arm P-3 Orions before they headed out on anti-submarine patrols over the Atlantic, lies a heavily fortified, open-air bunker where this month bluShift successfully test fired its new, biofueled MARVEL 2.0 rocket engine. It will eventually power the 50-foot-tall Starless Rogue 2.0 – a bigger version of the 20-foot prototype Stardust 1.0 rocket the company successfully launched more than 4,000 feet over the Loring Commerce Center in Limestone in January 2021.

The launch of Stardust 1.0, bluShift Aerospace’s first rocket, in January 2021. Courtesy of bluShift Aerospace

But therein lies the rub. After the town of Jonesport balked at letting bluShift launch its latest rocket from tiny Water Island just off the Down East Maine coast, Deri and his band of young scientists have set their sights on the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for their next liftoff later this year.

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That mission is time-sensitive – a successful space launch and payload retrieval will qualify bluShift for next year’s round of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, opening a crucial door to actual commercial space contracts.

Deri sees the trip to Florida as a temporary detour from his ultimate goal: Build, operate and grow a commercial launch company here in Maine that will provide a “Space Uber” service to an ever-growing number of companies looking to put tiny, low-orbit cube satellites, or “CubeSats” into space. Think first-ever broadband service to remote areas, improved cellphone signals, high-altitude imaging to track weather and climate change…

And here’s the truly innovative part. Inspired by a visit to his brother’s organic farm in North Yarmouth eight years ago, Deri came up with a nonpolluting biofuel for the rocket – the raw material for which is readily available on virtually any Maine farm. Proprietary interest prevents him from saying anything beyond “it’s not manure,” but except for the act of transporting it, Deri said, it’s-carbon neutral.

“People told us, including folks from NASA, that the biofuel wouldn’t work, that the performance wasn’t there,” he said. “And we’ve proved differently.”

Yet despite that achievement, bluShift now faces a bigger, and in many ways more confounding, challenge: Secure a launch site along Maine’s coast somewhere east of, say, Deer Isle.

Why there? Because the CubeSats require polar orbits – meaning they pass over the North and Sound Poles. Down East Maine is the only part of the contiguous United States that juts far enough out into the Atlantic Ocean to ensure that a southerly launch would take place completely over water – a primary concern when it comes to safety and recovery of the two-stage rocket’s reusable first stage.

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Sascha Deri talks with lead mechanical engineer Luke Saindon at bluShift’s office on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Which brings us back to Jonesport. Deri made three trips there in recent months to present his plan, listen to concerns about the launch – primarily from local lobstermen – and make adjustments to accommodate those concerns.

It didn’t work. Despite bluShift’s promise to launch only on Sundays in the evening, to replace any fishing equipment that might get damaged or entangled by the rocket’s parachute lines, and to pay selected lobster boat owners handsomely to actually patrol the launch zone and help recover the rocket’s first stage, the town placed a six-month moratorium on any launches while it crafts Maine’s first-ever “aerospace ordinance.” An ordinance that, as one selectman put it in January, will be “extremely prohibiting.”

Deri calls it the “fear hump.” At his last presentation to the town, he recalled, “a very small contingent of folks who were very negative, wouldn’t even let me finish off my presentation. It was a stream of questions they didn’t really want me to answer – it was just a way to lock up time. … It was like a filibuster.”

Two points worth making here. One is that lobstermen, try as they might to persuade us otherwise, don’t own the ocean – let alone the skies over it. The other is that warming waters induced by climate change will put them out of business long before any bluShift rocket does.

Such close-mindedness doesn’t bode well for Maine’s technological future. An environmentally friendly space industry, driven by what Deri calls “the two C’s” – curiosity and commercial – can go a long way toward creating new, high-paying jobs, attracting talent here from away and retaining those young Mainers who now take their scientific prowess elsewhere. Deri, 50, estimates the average age of his 16-member workforce at “somewhere in the mid-30s.”

Worth noting at the same time is that bluShift’s reach for the stars is not occurring in a vacuum. “An Act to Establish the Maine Space Corporation,” now before the Legislature, would make Maine “a national and international industry destination and an authority in launching small launch vehicles and small satellites into polar orbit.”

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The bill, L.D. 1923, calls for a state-of-the-art center to gather and analyze satellite data, a Maine New Space Innovation Hub to incubate and grow satellite manufacturing and launch enterprises, and a service to help develop launch sites for actually getting “nanosatellites” into space.

bluShift Aerospace CEO Sascha Deri watches a test of his company’s rocket engine in Brunswick on March 1. Contributed photo

“This isn’t Star Trek. This isn’t like what we’re seeing with Jeff Bezos’ or Elon Musk’s companies. These are not large passenger ships.” Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, the bill’s sponsor, said Friday on Maine Public’s “Maine Calling” program. Rather, she said, “these are really responsive, researched-based institutions and launches that benefit us as a whole. … I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for our state.”

But alas, L.D. 1923 too has run into opposition: A group calling itself “No Toxic Rockets for Maine” plans to lobby legislators against the bill this week. Their website – replete with overheated warnings of military launches, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic fallout and holes in the ozone – left me underwhelmed. If we’re going to talk greenhouse gas emissions from flying objects, why not start with the daily takeoffs from the Portland International Jetport?

Far more persuasive, at a time when Maine’s lobsters are retreating to the north and our brain drain is flowing to the south, is the vision of a guy like Sascha Deri. A guy who grew up here, got his engineering degree from the University of Southern Maine (after a degree in physics from Earlham College in Indiana) and isn’t afraid to dream big. A guy who once looked at a book of matches and, under close parental supervision, let his young scientific mind wander.

“I never hurt any people, animals or plants,” Deri recalled of his early experimental days. Holding out his hands, he added with a smile, “And I still have all 10 digits, which is sort of miraculous.”

Let the countdown commence …

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