“We looked at the airline industry and said: ‘how many people does it actually take to maintain and fly a 747?’ and ‘how many people does it take to support a single launch of a single Space Shuttle?’ We want to get that down closer to how an airline operates and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Over the last few months, Masten’s unmanned Xaero rocket has been making regular atmospheric flights from Mojave. After 110 flights, it recently crashed as a result of a mid-air engine failure. Not that that’s deterring anyone. “We’re building the next vehicle already and we should have it flying within the next couple of weeks,” says Masten.
Down the road, inside the workshops at XCOR Aerospace, engineers are testing a rocket ignition system. As I walk in, I’m instructed to put on bulky ear defenders and stand well back. The resulting bang is still loud enough to make me jump as it reverberates around the workbenches, racks of tools and heavy machinery lining the walls.
The company’s Lynx sub-orbital space plane is being promoted to carry space tourists (and has already been featured in this column). On the other side of the XCOR hanger, the vehicle is gradually taking shape – with a two-person cockpit dwarfed by the enormous rocket engine behind. Its pipes, wires and nozzles a mass of technical complexity.
Do or try
At each of these companies, different ideas are being developed. XCOR’s CEO, Jeff Greason, says it’s an exciting time. “We’re at the phase of space now that’s like the period in aviation leading up to the First World War, where the configurations differed wildly, with triplanes, or biplanes or monoplanes,” he says.
“The world is full of self-proclaimed expert opinion on what will or won’t work in space but there’s been remarkably little ‘let’s go and find out’. It’s time for that to happen now.”
This entrepreneurial can-do attitude runs deep within the start-ups that are drawn to Mojave. It is one of the reasons why it is compared to Silicon Valley. But there are also other parallels – the hard work, the belief that an idea can change the world as well as the fact that much of the money and founders of these companies came from the computer industry. In the years to come, maybe these workshops will be spoken of with the same awe as the garage where Steve Jobs and Wozniak built the first Apple computers.
But, there is also one other important parallel with Silicon Valley. In Mojave, failure is turned into a positive. The Rotary Rocket, appropriately standing in a small memorial garden alongside a full-sized replica of SpaceShipOne, is a daily reminder of this.
“There were a lot of people at this airport who worked on that project that never wanted to see it again, there were a lot of people that defined it as a failed project” says Witt. “It’s hard for me to find failure in something that became the birthplace for six new companies, all of which are still in business today. That, in itself, is something that needs to be celebrated. Someone had the willingness to try.”