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 4 of 5)
A former Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer, Mungas formed Firestar Technologies and moved to Mojave to make rocket science greener. “We started playing around with the idea of blending fuels with nitrous oxide for deep-space applications,” he says. A research contract from NASA’s Mars Advanced Technology Program resulted in NOFBX, Firestar’s patented mono-propellant.
“Nitrous oxide just decomposes into oxygen-rich air,” Mungas says. And monopropellants don’t require separate tanks of liquid oxygen. Mungas likens the propellant to “the propane bottle you take on camping trips,” something that fuels the camp stove, lights lanterns, and runs a generator. NOFBX from the tank that fuels a spacecraft’s rockets could also generate onboard electricity and drive turbine-powered equipment on a planet’s surface.
For a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Firestar developed a NOFBX-fueled piston engine for high-altitude, long-endurance drones. “It’s the unmanned equivalent of the U-2 spyplane,” Mungas says. Piston engines, powering everything from generators to small aircraft, have been modified in-house to run at altitudes with almost no oxygen.
Firestar engineers Ken Doyle and Greg Peters show me around the spaceport test site, north of the runways. “Big bangs happen here all the time,” Doyle says. “You never know whether it’s something at the [Soledad Mountain] gold mine over there or a test in progress.” Firestar’s site includes a 40-foot drop tower to shock-test propellants and a burn pit to cook them. A static stand for 10,000-pound-thrust engines throws fire out toward the scrub. “Depending on the amount of stuff that might explode,” Doyle says, the control room—an air-conditioned, computer-equipped, microwave-linked, steel shipping container—can be transported to safe distances.
Not everything else can. “My cousin’s got an old Firebird up on blocks,” says Greg Peters. “I tell him, ‘Guess what I’ve got up on blocks?’ It’s an 80,000-pound vacuum chamber made by General Dynamics in the 1960s to simulate deep space for satellites.” Mungas, who rescued the behemoth from a San Diego boatyard, is renovating the rare asset. Says Peters: “We can put sand and rocks inside, pump it down to Mars pressure, backfill it with CO2, and essentially create the Mars environment. Right here in Mojave.”
It’s “spaceflight participants,” not “space tourists.” XCOR’s Mike Massee is talking about booking suborbital spins in the Lynx Mk. II rocketplane. Compared to Virgin Galactic’s six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, Lynx is the scrappy two-seater down the block. Last September it completed supersonic wind tunnel tests at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Co-founded by Jeff Greason and several Rotary Rocket alums, XCOR targeted human “participation” from the get-go. The company’s EZ-Rocket is a Rutan Long-EZ homebuilt aircraft modified with twin rockets powered by isopropyl alcohol and liquid oxygen. “We made this just to prove we could make a rocket-powered airplane and fly it,” Massee says. And finding a pilot was EZ—Dick Rutan, Burt’s brother, has more hours in the Long-EZ than anyone. “That’s another cool thing about Mojave,” he says. “You walk a few doors down to your neighbor and say, ‘Hey, wanna fly the world’s first rocket-powered Long-EZ?’ ”
A few feet from EZ-Rocket stands a full-size Lynx mock-up, on which cockpit ergonomics are tweaked. The delta-wing aircraft, fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen, will take off and land horizontally. Between those conventional events: 37 miles straight up at Mach 2. An interlude of weightlessness—with panoramic overhead windows providing killer inverted Earth views—then a 4-G pullout and a circling, dead-stick reentry. Thank you for flying XCOR.
Jeff Greason came to Mojave via Intel. Why are so many space entrepreneurs Silicon Valley expats? “We’re all people who grew up in an era when the promise of the Apollo program was that it would keep going,” he says. But computers, not NASA careers, were the magnet for tech-minded whiz kids. “Once we got free to do what we really wanted to do, some of us looked back at the space industry and started asking, ‘Why is this not progressing?’