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Mojave: Where the Old Frontier Meets the Space Frontier

To get to the heart of the NewSpace industry requires a long drive through the desert. A drive north of Palmdale and Lancaster, past the scrub and Joshua trees and the distant dry lake beds of Edwards Air Force Base, the dry landscape of browns and tans broken only by the white stems and rotors of windmill farms on the hillsides. Arriving at the Mojave Air & Space Port, a quick scan of the ramshackle blue buildings and hangars left over from a World War II Marine Corps air station raises the question: This is the heart of the industry that will put regular folks into space? The environs of Mojave, with its acre after empty acre, suits those working out of the old wooden hangars and aluminum buildings. They put up with the deprivations of a distant desert town in exchange for solitude, mostly unrestricted airspace and cheap rent. Mojave is where the old frontier of railroad and mining activities meets the new frontier of space. The structures are beaten up and weather worn but the activity inside sets the imagination soaring. “Inside The New Area 51” declared a Popular Mechanics cover story from last summer that dubbed Mojave “a hotbed of rebel aerospace.” At the space port, the engineers and pilots at XCOR Aerospace are developing the Lynx, a two-seat reusable winged spacecraft able to reach suborbital altitudes. At the space port, Dave Masten and his small team workout engines and launch vehicles to take payloads into space. At the space port the Rotary Rocket took to the air before being grounded due to lack of money. It’s where civilians learn to fly at the National Test Pilot School and where the WhiteKnightTwo makes its test flights in anticipation of the day it takes paying customers of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo into space. “What you get in Mojave is a group of dreamers who take their destiny into their own hands,” observed Rick Tumlinson, founder of Orbital Outfitters, a North Hollywood firm developing and making spacesuits for the NewSpace market. The airport is comparable in size to LAX and has runways long enough to handle the passenger jets flown in for temporary storage or put up on blocks and stripped for their parts. More than 40 businesses call it home, some mundane as a car rental agency or UPS facility. In the aerospace arena, rocket developers and aircraft storage and maintenance are found alongside advanced avionics companies and compositors who can turn materials into aircraft wings or windmill blades. Global defense contractors BAE Systems Inc. and Northrop Grumman share the airport with fledgling startups funded by savings accounts and credit cards. While it was NASA that put man on the moon and has continued its exploration with the Space Shuttle program, the Hubble Telescope and probes to the outer planets, space is no longer reserved for government agencies. “If (space exploration) is to survive and get to the next level it must rely on the private sector,” said airport general manager Stuart Witt. Mojave succeeds because of the visionary environment created by Witt, a former Navy test pilot who chooses his words carefully, taking control of the conversation in his Western-themed office much as he kept control of the F-18s he flew. A seeming tangent about the 500-year cycle of knowledge gain and the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan leads Witt to express his belief that great advancements come from taking risks. “We promote the taking of risk,” Witt said. Among the risk takers are Burt Rutan who has been on the airport for more than 30 years and whose company Scaled Composites built the WhiteKnightTwo and was acquired two years ago by Northrop. XCOR founder Jeff Greason worked on the Rotary Rocket and founded his company after Rotary went out of business. Masten was a tech entrepreneur who left Cisco Systems to become a space entrepreneur. Rotary founder Gary Hudson remains at the space port making rocket engines at his new company Protoflight. A friendly competition exists among these NewSpace pioneers who feed off each other and pull together when it comes to regulatory issues. When one company succeeds, all celebrate. When there is a loss, all mourn. When an explosion at the Scaled Composites test site killed three workers in 2007, fire equipment that had been at the nearby XCOR site was the first on the scene. “It’s not a vicious hammer-and-claw type of competition,” said Doug Graham, who handles media relations for XCOR. The company is at work on its third launch vehicle, the first destined for space. Four engines powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene will take the Lynx into a suborbital arc. Test flights are expected to begin in 2010 and take anywhere from a year to 18 months. In the vertical vs. horizontal liftoff divide, the XCOR team falls on the latter. They went with a winged vehicle because if something goes wrong with the rocket engines the craft can glide safely to the ground. Dave Masten, however, called wings on a space vehicle worthless and unnecessary. By using multiple rockets and other redundancies he said vertical liftoff is a safer way to take cargo into space. At a test site on the north side of the space port, Masten has put a 500-pound thrust engine through 1,000 firings; a 750-pound thrust engine has gone through 80 firings. These engines are built from off-the-shelf parts with minor modifications. “We can make money doing this while building up a flight history to show we are as safe as the analysis says we are,” Masten said. For all the advantages a desert location gives the NewSpace industry, danger lurks in the halls of Sacramento where lawmakers are focused on the jobs and money produced by the old aerospace industry. Tumlinson, of Orbital Outfitters, compares it to supporting the horse-and-buggy trade while nearby tinkering takes place on the horseless carriage. Other states are trying to lure the companies away. New Mexico, with its Spaceport America, has already been picked as the site of Virgin Galactic’s corporate headquarters. Stu Witt, however, won’t lose a business without a fight. He will not see the heart of the NewSpace industry move to someone else’s desert. Staff Reporter Mark Madler can be reached at (818) 316-3126 or by e-mail at mmadler@sfvbj.com . One of his earliest memories is a visit to what was then known as Cape Kennedy in Florida.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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