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From the desert to space

Alan Boyle / msnbc.com
The city-limits sign on California's Sierra Highway proclaims Mojave to be "the

Gateway to Space." The town is the site of America's first inland spaceport.

SpaceShipOne may have put Mojave, Calif., on the map five years ago — but when it comes to the future of space travel, there's more than one game in town. And if Mojave does live up to the town's claim on the city-limits sign to be "the Gateway to Space," the diversity of its emerging rocket ecosystem could well be the secret to its success.

"It's cool to think that three of the companies in the country that fly reusable launch vehicles are within a five-minute walk of each other," said Jonathan Goff, propulsion engineer at Mojave's Masten Space Systems (and one of the bloggers behind Selenian Boondocks).

Masten, which just won $1.15 million in rocket prizes from NASA, is one of those three companies, of course. So is Scaled Composites, the company that built the SpaceShipOne rocket plane as well as the just-unveiled SpaceShipTwo. XCOR Aerospace, which is working on a different breed of rocket plane, the Lynx, rounds out Goff's trio.

Add in other ventures old and new, ranging from BAE Systems to Interorbital Systems, and Mojave (population 3,836 as of 2000) would have to rank as one of the nation's leading municipalities in aerospace ventures per capita.

When you look at the town - sitting smack dab in the Mojave Desert, one and a half hours' drive from Los Angeles - you might wonder why. Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites' founder and one of Mojave's leading citizens, joked that the company used to keep track of how long its newly hired employees' wives wept when they saw the town. (He reported that the record was seven and a half weeks.)

But the desert's wide-open spaces - and especially the wide-open airspace over Mojave - have become the big attraction for rocket ventures such as Masten. That company's founder, former network engineer Dave Masten, noted that Mojave is much more hospitable for rocket testing than his previous base of operations, up the road in Silicon Valley.

"That had a little problem, that you turn on a rocket and the neighbors complain," he joked.

Aleta Jackson, one of XCOR's founders, said Mojave's open skies have an inspirational as well as a logistical benefit.

"Being able to see a horizon makes you think about what's beyond it," she said.

The Mojave Desert's space-age DNA goes back much further than SpaceShipOne: You could argue that America's rocketship culture was born at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, where test pilots made history - and made for good tales such as "The Right Stuff" by Tom Wolfe. All the big aerospace companies are represented just down State Route 14 in Lancaster and Palmdale, where NASA's space shuttles were built.

You could also argue that the current sequel to "The Right Stuff" began 10 years ago, when Rotary Rocket's Roton craft lifted off to mark the first-ever rocket launch from Mojave. As a business, Rotary failed miserably, in part due to a sharp contraction in the anticipated satellite market at the turn of the century. (Remember Teledesic?) But the people who worked at Rotary have gone on to found a host of other aerospace ventures, including XCOR.

"I think you declare victory over that," said Stuart Witt, a former Navy test pilot who is now general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port. "It may have been a failed business, but that was the catalyst."

Rotary Rocket's history shows that failure is an option for any of Mojave's space ventures - and that's OK. "This country needs a place where you can take great risk, otherwise you don't have great breakthroughs," Witt said. 

Today, the Roton is on display as a monument to Mojave's space strivings, in a small park just a stone's throw from the airport's administrative building (and the attached Voyager restaurant, the town's premier gathering place). A replica of SpaceShipOne is also on view. Someday, perhaps, the rockets of XCOR, Masten and other Mojave ventures will join the exhibit. But not just yet.

Masten Space Systems, for example, is back at work refitting the Xombie, one of its prize-winning rocket prototypes, for even higher flights. "We're much closer to real altitude flights than we were a year ago, before the Lunar Lander Challenge," said Joel Scotkin, the company's lead investor.

Masten's Xoie flew well enough to win the challenge's million-dollar top prize in October - but the next-generation Masten rocket, tentatively code-named Foxie, could soar up to 100,000 feet. And Scotkin said the design planned for the rocket after that, known as Xogdor, should be "space-capable."

XCOR also plans to get to space in stages: The company plans to send its Lynx Mark 1 prototype rocket plane at least 38 miles high and sell rides at $95,000 apiece. Nelson said getting the Lynx off the ground was now XCOR's top priority.

"It could be the end of 2010 if we're extremely lucky ... and no one's usually that lucky," he said. The lessons learned with Mark 1 will be applied to a Mark 2 production version capable of reaching an altitude of 66 miles, beyond the internationally accepted 62-mile (100-kilometer) boundary of outer space. The Mark 2 could take shape nine to 18 months after the Mark 1 passes its initial flight tests, Nelson said.

Space tourism is one of XCOR's potential markets, although the XCOR team prefers to call the people sitting alongside the Lynx's pilot "participants" rather than "tourists." The view looking up from the cockpit will be expansive, as I could see for myself when I sat in a mockup today.

XCOR is also targeting microgravity research, as are other suborbital space ventures. Nelson estimated that the Mark 1 could provide around a minute's worth of zero gravity at a time, while the Mark 2 could go weightless for several minutes.

The cockpit is structured to leave space for a small scientific payload behind the pilot's seat. And if you take out the passenger's ... excuse me, the participant's ... seat, there'd be enough room for two shuttle middeck lockers' worth of experiments. Nelson said the cost of flying an experiment would be in the range of $50,000 to $75,000.

Eventually, the space plane could be hooked up with an expendable launcher on top to send nanosatellites weighing up to 22 pounds (10 kilograms) into low Earth orbit. The price tag for doing that would be less than $500,000, Nelson said.

Nelson said the "sales pipeline" is filling up for the Lynx, even though it hasn't yet been completed. He estimated there could be $250 million worth of potential revenue in the pipeline. How about some specifics? Nelson declined to reveal any details, but the Mojave grapevine was humming with suggestions that XCOR had some good news on the way.

"It feels a lot like things are accelerating," he said. "Stay tuned. Give us a week and a few days."

Correction for 12:30 p.m. ET Dec. 9: I mixed up XCOR's expected price list for flying payloads (onboard experiments vs. launches into low Earth orbit). That mistake has now been fixed. Many thanks for setting me straight, Andrew! I also added one of the chief reasons for Rotary Rocket's failure, which I meant to do as I was editing the item.

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