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It lacks the glamour of Canaveral, but for Cal State students, an engine test stand in the desert beats the classroom. (Chad Slattery)

The Mojave Launch Lab

A community of alternative rocketeers who may one day dominate the space biz.

Elsewhere, Roton might have been discreetly withdrawn from public view long ago. But at the Mojave, California Air and Space Port, the towering, cone-shaped rocket-helicopter hybrid is permanently displayed at the entrance to the administration building, right where the facility’s general manager, Stuart Witt, wants it. A late 1990s dsesign for single-stage-to-orbit spaceflight, Roton started with an Atmospheric Test Vehicle, which got off the ground three times, never higher than 75 feet. But Witt says it ushered in a new era of thinking: “That you didn’t have to be Boeing or Aerojet. That the small guy was free to dream big and take big risks and maybe create a breakthrough at a place called Mojave.”

Speaking with Jeff Greason, CEO of the Mojave-based spaceflight venture XCOR Aerospace, I stammer for a word more diplomatic than “failure” to describe Roton, which he worked on over a decade ago. “Just go ahead and say it,” Greason laughs.

In the 1970s, Witt’s predecessor, Dan Sabovich, envisioned Mojave as the civilian counterpart to aerospace test facilities at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. By 1982, designer Burt Rutan had turned his revolutionary kitplane business at Mojave into Scaled Composites, creator of the round-the-world Voyager and Beechcraft’s all-composite Starship. Not many years later, Witt says, Rutan began thinking outside the atmosphere.

Witt is a Top Gun grad and former Navy F-14 aviator who exudes a fighter pilot’s cool and edge, even behind a desk. As its director, he is the spaceport’s driving force and philosopher-in-residence. From his expansive office windows, with views of outstretched runways and desert mountains smoldering in the distance, Witt points up at airspace. “It’s a drawing card of epic proportions,” he tells me. “Think about what drew Wilbur and Orville to Kitty Hawk. Freedom from encroachment of the press, freedom from industrial espionage, and a steady breeze. You could easily say, ‘That’s exactly what’s at Mojave too.’ ”

Witt works, lectures, and lobbies to keep it that way. He’s a big-picture guy, but big government programs aren’t part of it. He views NASA “not as bad people” but as an agency strangled by complexity, both organizationally and with vehicles like the shuttle: “Think how many miracles had to occur to get that thing into space.” Witt maintains that routine escape from the atmosphere can come only via private-sector efforts, noting that 50 years of government-funded launches have put only about 500 people in space. “It’s kind of an embarrassment,” he says.

Mojave’s diverse and often unconventional tenants present challenges a county airport manager doesn’t encounter: From maverick Burt Rutan, working wizardry behind the big doors at Scaled Composites, to the marketers of “premium micro-gravity” and exotic propellant brewers occupying metal hangars, some without air conditioning, in the middle of a desert. Almost daily, one of them is in Witt’s office. “Sometimes it’s a pleasant discussion,” he says. “Sometimes it’s fists pounding on my desk. Sometimes it’s ‘You gotta get these regulators off my butt.’ ” Witt’s official function—and personal mission—is to facilitate the free thinking and farsighted, “then get out of their way.”

Pre-dawn at the Mojave McDonald’s, photographer Chad Slattery and I rendezvous with a pair of Air Force officers. Incognito in jeans and T-shirts, Lieutenant Colonel Ladonna Davis of the Air Force Research Laboratory and Captain Jeremy Selstrom from Edwards Air Force Base will escort us down dirt roads to the Friends of Amateur Rocketry launch site.

At a dry lakebed, a Small Business Innovative Research contract from the Department of Defense’s Operationally Responsive Space Program Office draws a consortium of students from California State University at Long Beach. With them are representatives from a lean, mean spaceflight contractor and several Friends of Amateur Rocketry mentors. Overnight they’ve prepped a 4,500-pound-thrust rocket engine fueled by ethanol and liquid oxygen for a day of static tests. Garvey Spacecraft Corporation is the contractor developing a vehicle to economically loft tiny nano-satellites into low Earth orbit. Cal State students receive hands-on experience; John Garvey gets the prospect of selling the Responsive Space Office 10 rockets a year. “It’s a very professional group,” Selstrom says. “Believe me, if you tried to do this at the Air Force Research Lab, you’d get maybe two tests a day, if you’re lucky. It’s a big facility and they’ve got much larger fuel tanks and systems to deal with.” At Friends of Amateur Rocketry, the purge/refuel turnaround between tests can be accomplished in only an hour.

Eric Besnard, a Cal State Long Beach professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, assures in a faint French accent, “If it fails, it should only be a burn-through, not a catastrophic failure.” Mounted horizontally on a test stand at the Friends of Amateur Rocketry site, the Cal State Long Beach engine vents vapor in the morning air. Designed and constructed by Besnard’s students, it will be tested in 20-second burns, building toward a total of 120 to 150 seconds, necessary to launch an orbital first stage. Each second accumulated brings the project a little closer to the approval to launch at a NASA facility like Wallops Island in Virginia.

For students, it’s out of the classroom and into real-world rocketry. “There aren’t many 22-year-olds who’ve loaded LOX [liquid oxygen] and ethanol into liquid rockets,” says Garvey. New guys get assigned to fuel loading: “That’s kind of the cool, macho thing to do, you know. They can say, ‘Hey, I’m working with LOX.’ ” The experience separates the more theoretical-minded from those having “the field test mentality,” as he calls it. Things aren’t clean, it’s not pretty, “and you may be working late.” A student using coarse language in range of videocams recording the test catches his notice. “Hey, no seven-letter words,” he barks.

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