Commercial Spaceflight Takes Off in Mojave

By Michael Belfiore, Chronogram, Fall 2004

The Next big Thing

With a whine of jet engines, the airship White Knight taxied down the runway past the bleachers where I stood with my wife, Wendy, and a horde of journalists, photographers, & broadcasters.  Attached to its belly, a stubby rocket plane called SpaceShip One was about to make history.

The mated pair reached the end of the runway, and then turned to come back toward us.  The engines roared.  The White Knight gathered speed, shot past us, and leapt into the sky.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” said an announcer, “welcome to the dawn of a new space age!”

It was Monday, June 21, 2004, 6:47am, soon after the sun had boiled up out of the desert sands in the east.  We’d gotten to the Mojave Airport at four to stay ahead of the tens of thousands of space fans who had flocked here in RVs, cars, trailers, and pickups.  Some of them had camped out all night and made a party of it, complete with spacey costumes and DJs imported from LA, 100 miles away.

Wendy and I and everyone else had come to watch not only the world’s first privately funded mission to send a person into space, but also the opening of the final frontier to us regular folks.  Folks like Mike Melvill, at the controls of SpaceShipOne, carried ever higher by the White Knight.

When the rocket and carrier plane reached 47,000 feet, we heard from mission control, cutting in over the announcer: “You’re go for release.”  High overhead, too high to see, the White Knight dropped SpaceShipOne.

Two or three seconds later, a contrail bloomed midway between the sun and the eastern horizon.  It grew fast, forming a thin, chalky line that rose above the sun in seconds.  The contrail abruptly ended as SpaceShipOne’s rocket engine cut off and the space plane coasted to a peak altitude of 62 miles – and out of the atmosphere.


Under a black, starless sky, Melvill could see the entire Southern California coast.  The colors of the desert, the mountains, the ocean, and the snowy cloud layer over Los Angeles, he said afterwards, “blew me away.”  He felt as though he had reached out and “touched the face of God.”  And then, just to keep things from getting too serious, Melvill took some M&Ms out of a pocket of his flight suit and released them into the cockpit.  The red, yellow, blue, and green candies spun weightless around him, glittering and dancing in the air.

Photographers draw a bead on SpaceShipOne’s takeoff.

Down on the ground, we felt as though we were with Melvill in SpaceShipOne, strapped into one of the two passenger seats behind him.  It was just a matter of time, the spacecraft’s designer, Burt Rutan, had told us earlier, before the price of a cheap Asian econocar could buy us our own tickets to space.

Hell, we weren’t just with Melvill in that cockpit, we were him.  He was one of us: balding, 63 years old, with glasses, giddy with excitement as he climbed out of the hatch back on the ground.  “I’m just a guy,” he said to the crowd.  “An old guy.”  You can do this, his very presence told us without words.  You will do this.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stu Witt, the airport’s general manager, announced to the crowd, “Mojave Spaceport is open for business!”

With that, Witt announced the end of NASA’s monopoly over human spaceflight in this country.  Regularly scheduled flights out of the atmosphere with paying passengers were now not only possible, but a near certainty.

This was just the result space visionary Peter Diamandis had intended when he founded the Ansari X Prize back in 1996.  It was a different era.  The computer tech boom was in full swing, the space shuttle was flying regularly, the International Space Station was about to begin construction in Earth orbit, and space seemed forever out of reach of most private citizens.

Diamandis had become a physician and a general aviation pilot to make himself more attractive to NASA as an astronaut candidate.  But he had learned along the way that his chances for becoming a NASA astronaut were on the order of a thousand to one.  And besides, the best he could hope for as an NASA astronaut would be a few flights on the space shuttle and maybe, if he was very lucky, one or two missions on the International Space Station.

What was needed, Diamandis decided, was a much better way to get to space.  One that flew with far greater regularity than the few-times-a-year space shuttle, and far more cheaply than the shuttle’s $10,000-a-pound price tag.  It also had to be funded entirely with private funding, since, if NASA was any indication, any government involvement would severely limit access by private citizens.

In establishing his prize, Diamandis took his cue from the $25,000 Orteig Prize Charles Lindbergh won by flying across the Atlantic in 1927.  Like Raymond Orteig before him, Diamandis sought nothing less than to jumpstart an entirely new industry, by nurturing companies that would  open a formerly prohibitively expensive and dangerous means of travel to anyone who could afford the price of a ticket.

But the stakes would have to be much higher than in 1927.  Diamandis figured $10 million was a nice, round figure for his prize, offered to the first private company that could send three people into space, defined as 100 kilometers (62 miles), straight up, bring them back down safely, and repeat the feat with the same vehicle in less than two weeks.  Diamandis raised much of the money from private donors, and took out an insurance policy to guarantee the rest.  The new space race was on.

Scaled Composites, led by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan, was the first company to register for the prize, and eight years later, on that bright morning of June 21, 2004, when Melvill rocketed out of this world in a spacecraft designed and built to win the X Prize, Diamandis had his goal in sight.

It would only be two or three months before Scaled launched its prize flights (Melvill’s flight, carrying only the weight of its pilot, was just a dress rehearsal).  Two dozen of Scaled’s competitors were hard at work on their own spaceships, and at least one of them claimed to be in a position to challenge Rutan for the prize.

All of which boded very well for Diamandis’ dream of a future in which private citizens like himself could buy tickets on regularly scheduled spaceflights.  Once someone demonstrated that it could be done, Diamandis reasoned, venture capital would flow into the most promising space startups, which would then start returning their investments by flying regular passenger service to space.

X Prize-class suborbital spaceships would never do much more than go straight up and come straight back down.  SpaceShipOne, for instance, while it is the fastest, highest-flying private-sector vehicle ever built, still only flies at about one-eighth the speed and one-quarter the altitude of orbital vehicles like the space shuttle.  Private spacecraft builders, the entreprenauts, have a long way to go before they can rival the achievements of NASA.

Nevertheless, space tourism agency Space Adventures, which sent the first paying passengers to the International Space Station in 2001 and 2002, lined up about a hundred customers for suborbital flights even before the vehicle they could ride in existed.  Those first customers have already paid Space Adventures sizeable deposits on their $100,000 tickets.  Their motivation: to be among the first few hundred people in history to see the blue sky fade to black and the Earth curve beneath them, to feel themselves weightless, children of the universe.

It’s something 36-year-old investment banker Per Wimmer has dreamed of since high school, when his physics teacher turned him on to the wonders of space.  Unfortunately, the prospect for Danish nationals like Wimmer to become astronauts seemed vanishingly small, and so he resigned himself to experiencing space vicariously through books and media.

He settled for the next best thing to space travel: becoming an adventure traveler, swimming with sharks, visiting exotic locales in scores of countries, and skydiving.  But when a fellow adventurer told him that Space Adventures was taking bookings for suborbital spaceflights, he signed up immediately, no matter that suborbital passenger spacecraft didn’t yet exist.  “It’s somewhat comparable to somebody who wants to climb a mountain,” he told me on the phone from London, of his burning desire to travel in space.  And he doesn’t plan to stop there; ultimately, he’d like to plant the Danish flag on the moon.

The space tourists, say the entreprenauts, are only the first customers for space travel, the vanguard providing the capital and the market for ever faster and higher flying ships that can carry passengers in ever greater numbers.  With greater economies of scale will come cheaper tickets.  And with that, predict the entreprenauts, the floodgates will open.

The market for $100,000 joyrides will probably remain relatively small, but the potential market for, say, $10,000 tickets for point-to-point travel to anywhere on Earth in under an hour, is much larger.  This could bring even bigger economies of scale to drive the cost of space travel down to the level of today’s coach-class plane tickets.  In that scenario, a thriving spaceflight industry could have as big an impact on today’s world as the airliner did on the world of steamships.

I went back to Mojave the day after Melvill’s flight, after the crowds had dispersed in their campers and RVs, the camera crews and photographers had folded their tripods, and the reporters had filed their last stories.

Mojave itself is a sad little town, fallen on hard times after a new freeway was routed around it, robbing it of the revenue that used to pass through much more frequently.  The boarded-up buildings, the abandoned library falling into ruin, the ancient motel signs proudly proclaiming the availability of television, all give the impression that the blazing desert sands have sucked the town dry and are slowly but steadily reclaiming it.  No one goes out in the bone-bleaching heat of midday, except to transfer from air-conditioned car to building and back again, so when I arrived the streets were deserted, eerily silent.

Mojave Airport cum spaceport is a collection of low bungalows and aircraft hangars hugging the long flightline, where air- and spacecraft can be rolled out for testing.  On the other side of the flightline, mothballed airliners stand like silent monuments to the age of jet travel.  Before Melvill’s flight, the airport’s biggest claim to fame was that it was home to another Rutan record breaker, Voyager, which became the first aircraft to fly around the world nonstop without refueling in 1986.

But Rutan’s is by no means the only activity here.  The airport is also home to the world’s premier civilian test flight school, and has long attracted the very best and brightest in civilian aviation – well before it became the birthplace of commercial spaceflight.

Like the desert tortoise and the Joshua trees that dot the landscape, the entreprenauts who work in the hangars here have learned to get by and even to thrive on less.  In fact, even the high roller of commercial spaceflight, Burt Rutan, built and operates SpaceShipOne for only about $20 million.  That’s less than the cost of a typical low-budget Hollywood film, or, as he put it to me and the other journalists gathered for the launch, “less than one of those government paper flights.”

Rutan’s voice broke with emotion as he described how proud he was of this accomplishment; he’s every bit as proud of it as the engineering that went into his spacecraft.  For Rutan’s sole financer, Microsoft co-founder and multibillionaire Paul Allen, the operation is a relative bargain.  And quite possibly a hedge against further downturns in the software industry.

Getting by with less is an asset, says Dan DeLong, chief engineer for XCOR Aerospace, another spacecraft company based at Mojave.  “Having too much money probably causes more companies to fail than having too little money.  You never learn thrift if you start out with too much money.”

The founders of XCOR, DeLong among them, know all about making do with less; they’ve often had to forgo their paychecks to squeak through lean times.  But that doesn’t bother co-founder Loretta “Aleta” Jackson, the company’s office manager, Jane-of-all- trades, and self-described company “mom.”

Jackson is happy to work for stock options.  In fact, she told me with a smile when I stopped by the company’s hangar for a visit, “I expect to be sick rich.”  She and DeLong both plan to retire on the moon.  “Our ultimate goal,” says Jackson, “is to make sure that Uncle Joe down the street can by a ticket and go into space and do what he wants to do, just like he can buy a ticket to Tokyo or to Cape Town.”

In fact, says Jackson, “Without routine, regular, reliable access to space, I think this planet is hosed.  We’ve got to have it.  And the sooner we get it, the better off everyone’s going to be.  You can do so much if you have routine access to space.  You can bring back resources that we don’t have.  One carbonaceous chondrite asteroid three kilometers in diameter will probably produce as a by-product more gold than has been mined to date on the Earth.”

DeLong calls himself a believer.  “It’s almost a religious thing,” he tells me with quiet intensity.  “You have to believe.  You have to be an optimist.  Obviously if we wanted to start a company just to make money, we would have done something easier.”

XCOR’s major source of income right now is the research arm of the Department of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which wants the company to build a better breed of rocket engine propellant pump, presumably for applications like guided missiles.

But the military work is just a means to a greater end for XCOR’s engineers and machinists, who keep the big picture firmly in sight.  The DARPA contract fuels a major component of XCOR’s planned Xerus spacecraft, a twin-seat vehicle designed to take off for space from a runway under its own rocket power, without the help of a carrier plane like SpaceShipOne’s White Knight.

Since XCOR plans the Xerus as a two-seat vehicle, not a three-seater, the company never sought to compete with Scaled Composites for the X Prize.  But XCOR is only the second company, after Scaled, to be awarded a suborbital launch license from the FAA.

One piece at a time, from customers like DARPA, XCOR plans to fund the development of Xerus until takers can be found for its services, launching space tourists, as the first stage for launching small satellites into orbit, and for scientific experiments that would normally be flown on high-altitude balloons.

One of the biggest challenges to building suborbital rockets, says DeLong, is showing funders not only that it can be done, but that it can be done safely and affordably.  To that end XCOR designs rocket engines for safety first, and everything else, including performance, follows after that.  To demonstrate its safe rocket technology, the company has built a “teacart” demonstrator.

The demonstrator is a small rocket engine mounted on a rolling cart along with a simple control panel and fuel tanks.  During my visit, it occupied a corner of XCOR’s spacious aircraft hangar near the racks of solid metal cylinders that are the raw material for rocket engines.  “It got us our first investors,” says DeLong.  “We ran it in a hotel ballroom, and we did it with fire marshal approval.  The fact that we had fire marshal approval is what impressed the investors.”

In addition to her work at XCOR, Jackson serves on the board of the Mojave chamber of commerce.  She and her colleagues on the board hope that the new commercial spaceflight industry will bring the economic rain that will make parched Mojave bloom.  Just this year, the airport received official designation from the FAA as a commercial spaceport, making it more attractive for new space companies to set up shop there.  Also this year, Mojave was designated an international trade zone – another important step in making the facility a major transportation hub, since goods transferred through Mojave are now no longer taxed until they reach their final destinations.

It’s difficult to imagine the depressed desert town of today as a major world port, along with all that comes with it, from high-rise hotels to sprawling passenger terminals and crowded runways at the spaceport.  But a religious billboard in Mojave provides a clue to the town’s otherworldly aspirations.  “Be not afraid,” it says.  “Only believe.”