Far out: Rocket company boosts Houghton’s economy
Robert Washeleski was designing rocket propulsion systems in Boston, loving the work but not the commute or high cost of living, when he landed a job at Orbion Space Technology in Houghton.
Since Washeleski joined Orbion in 2018, the company has hired 51 engineers from around the country. Orbion, which manufactures plasma thrusters that propel satellites, has lured talent from big cities to rural Houghton on Lake Superior where the outdoors beckons with abundant forests, lakes, rivers, waterfalls and ski hills.
Orbion’s six-figure jobs are hugely important to the local economy and community.
“It’s a great place to live,” he said. “I love the four seasons, and I really like winter—skiing, snowshoeing, even plowing.”
Centered on the Keweenaw Peninsula in an area once famous for copper mining, the budding rocket company helped register a 5.4% population gain in the northern reaches of the Upper Peninsula over the past two years.
That growth—measured by the U.S. Census—ranks Keweenaw among the highest-growth counties in the nation between 2020 and 2022. And one reason for that gain is Orbion, founded by University of Michigan alumnus Brad King, who is a space systems professor at Michigan Technological University.
Patrick Visser, chief commercial officer of Michigan Tech Enterprise Corp. SmartZone, a local business incubator that mentored Orbion in their earliest days, said Orbion’s unique value has won it “just about every startup competition in the state—Accelerate Michigan, Michigan Venture Capital Association, Tech Investment of the Year, Tech Company of the Year and with that, several rounds of funding for a total of more than $30 million.”
Orbion now counts Raytheon and General Atomics among its customers.
“Orbion became a national brand very quickly, just because it is so unique. Pardon the pun, but it’s on a rocket trajectory here,” said Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP, a private-sector-led regional economic organization. “The Keweenaw has been long respected for its technical acumen, but it wasn’t well known unless you knew of Michigan Tech or you knew of the Keweenaw for some reason.”
And Orbion is changing that from a reputation and local economic development standpoint, Fittante said.
“That’s so important for us because we’ve been losing population, and our population’s aging,” he said. “This sector, in particular, brings young talent with it and has such good-paying jobs.”
Eric Waara, the city manager of Houghton, says city leaders are filled with pride to have Orbion based in their town. It gives him hope that the city can attract more technologically advanced companies to the area.
“Everybody talks about high-tech jobs. Well, these are the highest of the high-tech jobs when you really get down to it,” he said. “And what that does is it brings people to your community, but they also bring families and hobbies. Orbion employees can go kayaking on their lunch hour, out their front door or they can hit the mountain bike trails on the way home from work.”
Originally from the Detroit area, Washeleski came to love Houghton as an undergraduate student in electrical and electronics engineering at Michigan Tech, where he earned his Ph.D. in Orbion founder King’s lab in 2012.
But he didn’t see much of a future in the Upper Peninsula for an engineer, and he was delighted when the Lincoln Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hired him. He joined Orbion as an engineering specialist in 2018 and was promoted to vice president of flight programs last year.
“It’s been great building the company here,” said Washeleski, adding that a space company in the UP “was something I never saw happening.”
King—who has doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s degrees in aerospace engineering from U-M—and co-founder Jason Sommerville have also made that possible for other engineers who hailed from Michigan and landed at labs and companies around the country, thinking they would have to live far from home if they wanted to pursue space science.
Engineers at NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Ball Aerospace waved goodbye to densely populated metropolises to join Orbion in Houghton. King says he hasn’t lost a single engineer since Orbion began hiring employees in 2016.
Orbion designs and manufactures plasma thrusters—specifically Hall-effect thrusters—that move small satellites around in space. Prized for its efficiency, plasma propulsion is rapidly becoming the preferred method for getting around in orbit, particularly for the small satellites that ride-share on a single rocket and then need to take their positions.
King chose to build his company in Houghton, just south of Keweenaw County in part because of its vibrant community of innovators connected with Michigan Technological University.
“The company is six years old. In that time, we’ve grown from two guys and a napkin sketch to 50 engineers, all very well paid, living here in northern Michigan and spending their paychecks on boats, real estate, food and the rest of the economy,” King said.
The company also sponsors community events and supports a local dogsled race. It also turned a 9,000-square-foot closed Sears location into a “couple million dollar rocket factory.”
Yet when Orbion started up a few years ago, it was hard to get potential investors and even team members to see Michigan as a spacefaring state, King said.
“When you think space, you think science-y, southern California. That may have been true 20 years ago, but now that space is making the transition into commercialization, well, Michigan knows manufacturing, right?” he said.
“Satellites are now being mass produced, like F-150s. There’s no better state in the country that knows how to do that than Michigan. We’re taking the skills Michigan has developed in the automotive sector and applying them to the next class of vehicles, which is satellites.”
David Rowe, CEO of MTEC SmartZone, said Orbion has developed a full spectrum of Aurora plasma thruster variants and a patented collision avoidance system they call El Matador.
The SmartZone is one of 20 in the state that provides an array of commercialization support to technology startups and is partly funded by the Michigan Department of Economic Development. It helps researchers and faculty at Michigan Tech to commercialize research and innovations with the goal of fostering economic development in the region.
Rowe, one of the first investors in Orbion, said the thrusters it makes came at the perfect time as the market goes from school bus-sized satellites to more refrigerator sized.
“The success has been rapid. It signifies that the marketplace is ready for this type of satellite propulsion,” he said. “Orbion’s reach is global, and it’s certainly one of very few that can do what they can do on this planet.”