Could a collection of dusty hangars and sheds in the Californian desert house the future of space flight?
The first thing you see as you drive into the Mojave Air and Space Port is a reminder of how hard it is to get into space.
Towering over the entrance is the white cone of the Rotary Rocket, a radical launch system that is half rocket, half helicopter. The fully reusable craft, developed in the 1990s, was supposed to reduce the cost of launching payloads into orbit by a factor of ten. In the end, the rocket failed literally and metaphorically to get far off the ground. But Stuart Witt, CEO of the spaceport, the vehicle is a daily reminder of the ‘can do’ attitude he hopes to encourage.
“Humanity needs a place where people are encouraged and allowed to take incredible risks in order to have breakthroughs,” exclaims Witt. “That has turned out to be our greatest magnetism: offering permission to people who are willing to try.”
The Air and Space Port, two hours drive north of Los Angeles, has become one of the most exciting – and least talked about – places in the modern space industry. Over the last 12 years, this vast expanse of flat, scrubby desert has hosted more than 6,000 rocket tests and is now home to 14 space companies. If you can cope with the blistering heat, a short walk along the runway will take you past hangers, industrial units and sheds that belong to The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and Masten Space Systems.
So far, the only craft they’ve flown into space is SpaceShipOne, a ship that is the template for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism venture. Nevertheless, the area is now spoken of by some as a new Silicon Valley or, as Witt prefers, a new Kitty Hawk – the North Carolina backwater where the Wright brothers experimented with powered flight. Whatever the comparison, the thrust is still the same. Mojave is a place where people dare to try.
“You need a place where people have permission to do these things. Western society has become enormously risk averse in the last 30 years,” Witt explains. “Here in the States your kid can’t ride a tricycle unless they’re wearing a helmet, or you’ll get a ticket or go to jail. There are so many things you can’t do, it permeates the society in which you live.”
If the set up at Mojave all sounds a little ‘Right Stuff’, with fearless test pilots pushing the boundaries of Earth, then that’s not far off the mark. Nor is it far away. Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in the X-1 rocket plane at nearby Edwards Air Force Base in 1947. And the first orbital Space Shuttle flight landed there as well. Mojave shares the same restricted air space, which allows supersonic test flights. But it’s not just about pushing the boundaries of what’s possible; it’s also about pushing the boundaries of what is commercially possible.
“Our big plan is to bring down the cost of space transportation,” explains Dave Masten, the founder of Masten Space Systems, “whether that’s just going up to the edge of space in a sub-orbital vehicle or going all the way to Mars.”
Masten is best known for developing rockets but he rarely speaks to journalists – after all, one of the other reasons space companies come to Mojave is to stay out of the public eye. But that doesn’t mean he’s short on ambition.
“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.”