The top half of Assistant Professors Aaron W. Johnson, Oliver Jia-Richards, Gökçin Çınar, and Max Li standing.

Michigan Aerospace Assistant Professors Receive START Grant for Spaceport Research

Congratulations Max Li, Oliver Jia-Richards, Aaron Johnson and Gökçin Çinar on receiving a Michigan Engineering START project grant

Launching a rocket can create a mess. If you’ve ever felt, heard, or seen a launch, you can start to understand the environmental effects of one launch. Today, when commercial space entities are queued up to use launch sites, this impact exponentially increases. 

With the current space industry growing at a rapid pace, there has become an increased need for dedicated facilities to support the testing and research of new space exploration technology. New spaceports are a solution, but given public preference for these sites to be far from their homes, the locations have a negative impact on communities with lower socioeconomic resources.

Four faculty members in the Aerospace department seek to research these issues, leveraging a START grant from Michigan Engineering. START funding is designed to help researchers build early stages of a comprehensive project to advance external funding opportunities. Faculty researchers working in the START program work together as a team to contribute their unique ideas and perspectives toward a common theme or research opportunity. 

From left to right: Assistant Professors Aaron W. Johnson, Oliver Jia-Richards, Gökçin Çınar, and Max Li

The project goal is to expand the environmental, emissions, and community impact considerations of the planning process for launch sites. They also plan to develop ways these models can be used in community-focused conversations. The START funding will help the team build the basis for larger scale funding grants as the project gets underway. 

Building more equitable quantifiable measures for spaceport planning, in combination with community involvement, is an anticipated outcome of the project. “It’s an exciting time in space exploration and travel, but one bottleneck which is quickly emerging as the availability of launch infrastructure within the US and beyond. As we think about and plan for the next generation of launch locations and spaceports, we need to be cognizant of the fact that these are huge pieces of infrastructure with the potential to negatively impact their surroundings,” comments Assistant Professor Max Li. 

“In this project, we aim to establish a framework for evaluating such impacts from a variety of perspectives, leveraging faculty and student expertise in facility planning models, environmental impact modeling, as well as education and community engagement. In particular, given the impacts of a spaceport on the surrounding communities, it will be critical to work closely with and empower the community in an intentional and human-centric approach throughout the development of our framework and its individual components,” continues Li.

The faculty are part of a growing team of academics in the aerospace department that focus on engineering aspects that affect society. Using this project to advance research topics of sustainability, these four faculty members are embracing the ‘people-first engineering’ framework here at U-M. By working closely together, they will identify possible solutions that will be used to empower students to understand the societal impact and nature of engineering projects. 

“As you note, one of the components of this project is to use our model in undergraduate aerospace classes at Michigan. We want students to understand the technical details of the model, but we also want them to realize what the model isn’t capturing,” states Assistant Professor Aaron Johnson when asked about the student component of their project. 

“We don’t want students to just accept the output of this model—or really, any model—we want them to recognize the model’s limitations and use their own judgment to interpret the results. We’re doing a lot of work on teaching students about the sociotechnical effects of aerospace technology (like in the NSF grant I got back in January), and the model that we’re working on in this START Project will be a great, concrete way for students to explore those effects,” he states. 

Environmental impacts of space launches need due attention and mitigation, another anticipated aspect of the team’s work. Identifying the future of spaceports and rocket launches with the environmental and human impacts due to different rocket propellants and combustion products is just the beginning. The team will assess their implications on not only climate change but also noise, health and emissions factors that are at play. 

“One of our primary research goals is to assess the potential environmental impacts of spaceports and rocket launches. We take into account various factors, including the type of rocket propulsion system, launch location, and weather conditions. Currently, our focus lies on investigating the emissions and noise generated during rocket launches, and their effects on ecosystems and biodiversity. Given the complexity and variability of these impacts, our approach involves studying the potential consequences of past launches as a first step. This understanding will enable us to project the future impact as launches become more frequent and diverse,” Assistant Professor Gökçin Çınar comments on the environmental and sustainability outcomes of this research.