The Mojave Launch Lab
A community of alternative rocketeers who may one day dominate the space biz.
- By Stephen Joiner
- Photographs by Chad Slattery
- Air & Space magazine, May 2011
(Page 3 of 5)
Applause rises from bunkers. “We’re good,” Garvey says, emerging from the blockhouse.
At Masten Space Systems, I’m up close with suborbital prototype Xombie, star of YouTube videos and recipient of the 2009 $1 million NASA/Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X-prize.
Xombie is even hotter in person: A reusable vertical-takeoff/vertical-landing vehicle, about the height and girth of an industrial water heater, with four landing struts and a single liquid oxygen/isopropyl alcohol engine. Xombie is the test horse for big sister Xaero, scheduled to offer commercial lifts into a high-quality microgravity environment (like that on an orbiting space shuttle, as opposed to high-altitude balloons or sounding rockets) sometime this year.
Dave Masten designed networks for IT icons like Cisco Systems and Ameritech. But before that, “I was a kid shooting off Estes model rockets,” he says. He advanced to high-powered rocketry—“Estes for adults with adult budgets”—then went above and beyond amateur status. At his first startup, in Santa Clara, certain “loud noises” drew complaints from neighbors. “In 2006, the golden handcuffs were freed from my previous ventures in Silicon Valley and I was able to move the company,” he says. “I found this place, where they actually like the idea of rocket tests. It was easy to fit into Mojave.”
Masten aims to market a low-cost microgravity environment for educational and scientific payloads. Xaero and Xogdor (still in development) promise access above 100,000 feet, without the drawbacks such as survivable ejection from expendable sounding rockets and rough parachute landings. On reusable vehicles like Xombie, the payload stays with the rocket, which soft-lands back on the pad it took off from. “We’ve tried to make them as autonomous as possible,” Masten says. “Computers are much better pilots than humans are.” Guided by GPS and inertial measurement units, vehicles reach Mach 2 before engine shutdown, then coast to their suborbital apogee, or high point. During freefall reentry, engine relight and deceleration occur a dramatic few hundred feet above the launch/landing pad. Xombie is the world’s first vertical-takeoff/vertical-landing vehicle to relight an engine in flight.
Payloads bask in high-quality microgravity up to four minutes. Xaero will offer less gravity than what zero-G aircraft provide, while the higher-reaching Xogdor should deliver microgravity as low as that experienced on the International Space Station.
With a small space startup’s focus on the bottom line, Masten keeps components as third-party as possible. Xombie’s onboard computer is an industrial module common in automotive applications. But I’m unprepared for the off-the-shelf WiFi base station—pretty much what I’ve got at home—that downlinks telemetry from the rocket. During his IT days, Masten engineered a project that beamed WiFi across San Francisco Bay. “You’ll replace that with something more permanent for suborbital flights?” I ask. Masten shakes his head and grins: “We’re gonna try to make it work all the way up. I am not kidding.”
When Apollo astronauts lifted off the moon, they left behind a lot of things besides footprints. Toxic hydrazine fuel contamination was one. Not a problem—nobody was returning soon. But for repeat visits to a lunar or Mars base, Greg Mungas says, “Having a non-toxic propellant will be a big deal.”