The California desert town of Mojave has turned into a "Silicon Valley" for commercial space development, thanks to such ventures as Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, XCOR Aerospace and Stratolaunch Systems. To some, the Mojave Desert seems desolate. But it's a hotspot for high-flying test flights - and for wind turbines and stunning sunsets.
Even though Mojave and the surrounding area have benefited from an aerospace boom, some parts of the town have become run down, as this closed apartment complex illustrates. "It's always been this side of the fence and that side of the fence around here," says James Stokes, the proprietor of Stoken Donuts, a bakery and deli near the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Jeremy Voigt, a design engineer for XCOR Aerospace in Mojave, demonstrates how he gets into the guts of a rocket engine that's under development at right. "This is my baby," Voigt says. "I know every piece of plumbing, and who put that plumbing there." XCOR is building a suborbital rocket plane that will take passengers and payloads to the edge of space.
A model of Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo airplane and the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane hangs from the ceiling at Stoken Donuts, one of the few new businesses to open in Mojave. The bakery and deli serves as a gathering place for young engineers as well as the town's old-timers. Proprietor James Stokes' wife and son work at Scaled Composites, the aerospace venture that helped build SpaceShipTwo. Scaled is one of the shop's best customers. "It's as busy as we can handle now," Stokes says.
Workers from the Mojave Air and Space Port play pickleball in an event center that was built in the space once occupied by a World War II-era Marine training pool. The $1.6 million renovation project is part of an campaign to make Mojave more livable and keep aerospace engineers in the area. "All of our efforts now are related to quality of life," says Stuart Witt, the airport's CEO.
Patrons enjoy lunch at the Voyager Restaurant at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Aviation is central to the history of the town, and while most establishments display model aircraft, the windows of the Voyager look out onto the airport's tarmac and an array of historic planes. The menu includes specialties such as the "Hangar Queen" (a three-egg omelet).
Mojave residents Cindy Georginna and Gary Anderson walk past the Space Port Court, a well-kept apartment complex that capitalizes on the town's space theme. The banner on the wall displays the silhouettes of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane and its WhiteKnightOne mothership. SpaceShipOne's prize-winning trips to outer space in 2004 rank as Mojave's biggest claims to fame.
Reflective of Mojave's aviation history, Bob's Army Navy Store shows off a wide array of unusual items, including a half-track, jet engines, dummy bombs and even a helicopter used in "The Sixth Day," an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. The store's manager, Shannon Kilby, says Mojave attracts lots of plane-crazy tourists. "They're hovering all over town, looking for something to do," she says. "They want to see things, they want to see jets."
Tile-setter Kevin Turndrup, 27, looks out from the yard of his house in Mojave. Turndrup has lived in the town for 15 years and says it badly needs an upgrade if it aspires to become a high-tech center. "If they're going to attract these guys in nicer jobs, they're going to need to build some nicer homes around here, nicer than this one," he says. "There is so much space here. ... We need more stores. No one likes to drive 30 minutes to Wal-Mart. This town - the only time they build something new is when they knock something else down."
The town of Mojave and the surrounding communities face big challenges. Will local businesses like the Budget Inn Motel keep the lights on? Doug Clipperton, president of the Mojave Chamber of Commerce, is pinning his hopes on a high-tech future - not only in aerospace, but in renewable energy as well. He points to the large-scale solar and wind power projects that are taking shape in the Mojave Desert. "This is the cutting edge, right here," Clipperton says.