SPACE

Desert Airport Becomes Home to New Breed of Space Entrepreneurs

4/1/2011
By Stew Magnuson
MOJAVE, Calif. — Robert Rice, airport operations director at the Mojave Air and Space Port, drove down a runway and pointed to the steel skeleton of a 68,000-square-foot building where spaceships designed to send tourists into sub-orbit will be constructed.

“We call this our field of dreams — build it and they will come. Well, finally they did,” he said.

The “field of dreams” is actually a runway constructed six years ago with all its infrastructure — sewer, water, power lines — built underneath. “They” is The Spaceship Company — a joint venture of billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites that will build a fleet of motherships that will launch smaller rocket planes about 60 miles above Earth.

Branson’s venture is just one of many companies, large and small, that have come to this one-time World War II Marine Corps aviation base to pursue their dreams of space travel.

While there has been much consternation about the erosion of the space-industrial base in the United States, the facility shows that the field still attracts entrepreneurs who are enthralled by the glamour and challenge of space travel.

The airport, about 100 miles northeast of Greater Los Angeles, was the first to receive a Federal Aviation Administration license as a spaceport. It is now being called a Mecca for the so-called new space movement, a loose collection of entrepreneurs who want to continue the push for exploration.

It has about 67 buildings, many of them built as “temporary” structures in World War II. They house a variety of businesses, most of them aerospace-related.

“You can see even in this economy, we’re building. We’re 100 percent occupied,” Rice said.

While old buildings are all leased out, the runway next to The Spaceship Company’s facility has tracts of empty land ready for development.

The spaceport has a control tower, safety equipment, and most importantly for the space entrepreneurs, plenty of empty land north of the runways where they can fire rockets or do static tests.

One of the occupants is Masten Space Systems, founded by David Masten. He was a rocket hobbyist at an early age, but went on to make his fortune in the information-technology industry. Now, he has returned to his first love, launching rockets, explained Colin Ake, assistant vice president for business development.

The company, with 11 full-time employees, is developing a fully reusable rocket, the Xombie, that it hopes can lift off, climb into space, then return without using parachutes. It recently won a $1 million lunar lander challenge prize by lifting off from a pad, touching down at another spot, then returning within two hours. The test was intended to mimic a vertical takeoff and landing on the moon.

“The $1 million was really helpful for a small company as you’re developing a technology. It’s not a funding source that can be counted on, but it helps things along. It opens a lot of doors,” Ake said.

The company recently won a NASA research-and-development contract to fly the Xombie four times. The initial market for the rocket will be sending up experimental payloads that need to be tested in microgravity. The Air Force, NASA, or other space-faring organizations, need to validate technology in space, and a $100,000-per-flight price tag could make that more affordable, Ake said.

For small companies such as Masten, the spaceport offers more than a remote location. There is the core of space enthusiasts, some of them seasoned aerospace engineers, who live in the desert valley. To the south is Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks where the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spycraft were developed. The space shuttles were built in Palmdale.

“It is a great eco-system for companies like ours,” Ake said.

Roderick Milliron, co-founder and chief engineer at Interorbital Systems, one of the first space-companies to set up operations at the space port, said, “There is a pool of people here who have unusual skills.”

Interorbital is building rockets and selling small satellites kits designed to go aboard them.

“It’s remote, we can still do our testing and maintain some semblances of civilization,” said Randa Milliron, chief executive officer. “Areas we used to test at were so far away, that if you forgot something, it was days to get back.”

Roderick added: “You have an enthusiastic work force here. It’s almost like a fan base of people.”
   

Topics: Space

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