Headlines > News > Space cowboys writing next chapter in history of flight

Space cowboys writing next chapter in history of flight

Published by Cathleen Manville on Sun Sep 26, 2004 4:03 pm
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chabot imageTaken from the Tri-Valley Herald
By Bob Keefe

MOJAVE — The Mojave Airport is an unassuming collection of old runways and dusty tin buildings. Planes and parts of planes — fighter jets, crop dusters, outdated commercial airliners — sit like ghosts in a desert graveyard.

The little airport has no regular passenger traffic, but it’s becoming known as the hub for space travel’s future.

On Wednesday, the first commercial rocket ever piloted by a non-military astronaut is scheduled to take a second brief trip from Mojave to beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

SpaceShipOne, as it’s called, made its maiden voyage to the stars from here in June, helping reignite a worldwide interest in private space travel that has been compared to beginning of commercial flight.

But the company that built SpaceShipOne, Scaled Composites Inc., is only one of several rocket designers here shooting for the stars.

Not far from Scaled Composites is Xcor Aerospace Inc., which is building rocket engines it hopes to sell to commercial space companies. Also nearby is Interorbital Systems, which is offering promotional $250,000 tickets for a week in space orbit, even though its first ship isn’t expected to be complete before 2006. Space Launch Corp., meanwhile, is building a rocket plane that could be used to launch small satellites.

In all, nine companies are working on space-related projects at Mojave, according to airport officials.

Those who have been to the airport known to pilots as “Mojo” say it really does have a lot going for it.

“You never expect by looking at it that this is where the next space age is being born, but it is,” said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a Washington, D.C. group that promotes civilian space travel. “It’s a very special place that I think history is going to remember.”

What makes the 1940s-era former naval air station 100 miles north of Los Angeles the place to be is “location, location, location,” said airport manager Stuart Witt, echoing the old real estate mantra.

Edwards Air Force Base, where military flight testing has its roots, is a next-door neighbor. China Lake, where the Navy does bombing training, is not far away. Hundred-degree heat and little rainfall have limited residential development, but make for great conditions for flying.

With airspace that’s restricted from regular air traffic because of military flights nearby, Mojave has what Witt calls “a tunnel to the moon” where commercial rocket companies are free to try creating the next space jetliner.

Already a hot spot for civilian flight testing, Mojave in June was designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as the nation’s first inland “spaceport.” The designation could help make it easier for companies to launch rocket ships and someday send passengers into space.

The people behind Mojave’s commercial space projects are an eclectic collection of space cowboys and colorful characters. Some are hard and weathered like the desert itself, while others are out-of-town billionaires who have more money than they can ever spend.

SpaceShipOne’s financier, for instance is Paul Allen, a Microsoft Corp. co-founder who can travel to Mojave from his Seattle-area home on any of his personal collection of airplanes. The rocket ship’s creator is legendary airplane designer and engineer Burt Rutan.

Interorbital Systems, on the other hand, is run by a husband-and-wife team who are trying to pay the bills by selling, along with the advance tickets to space, NASCAR-style ads on rocket ships and spacesuits and annual memberships in the Pacific Rocket Society.

Like Scaled Composites, some of the companies at Mojave are planning to compete for the biggest prize in commercial space rocketry.

Sponsors of the Ansari X Prize promise $10 million to the owner of the first private spaceship capable of launching three people into suborbital flight on two consecutive flights within two weeks.

The prize, created in an effort to jump-start commercial space travel, is modeled after aviation prizes such as the $25,000 competition that led to Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight in the “Spirit of St. Louis.”

Mojave Airport’s Voyager Restaurant is named after another record-setting airplane, built by Burt Rutan and flown by his brother Dick and co-pilot Jeana Yeager around the world in 1986. The nine-day trip was the first ever nonstop flight around the world without refueling.

Today at the Voyager, Mojave’s space junkies are talking shop over chicken wings and beer while TVs play videos of the historic flight. They bad-mouth NASA for what they say is overspending for too few accomplishments, and dream of a world when commercial space flight is as common as commercial air travel is today.

“There’s always space talk about who’s doing what and who’s going to fly the next mission,” said Dick Rutan, who in addition to helping his brother also has worked as a test pilot for Xcor and other companies.

“It’s awful interesting being real close to all of this, but it’s also fun to sit back and hear all the pronouncements versus (seeing) all the reality,” he said.

There have been flops at Mojave, and almost certainly there will be more.

Rotary Rocket Co., for instance, tried to build a pear-shaped rocket at Mojave that would initially be lifted with a helicopter-style rotor before blasting off into space.

But the company ran out of money for its Roton rocket ship. Two years ago, Xcor acquired much of its assets and technology.

Failures, though, are part of the lore and nature of flight. What’s important, almost anyone at Mojave will tell you, is that the spirit of flight — and now space travel — lives on despite the occasional flop.

“It’s the Field of Dreams’ concept,” said airport manager Whitt.

“What everybody here shares in common is the attitude that it’s OK to think big and take risks.”

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