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.

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Garvey already has one minute on the engine; he hopes to double that today. “By getting 60 seconds of burn, even in three chunks, we’ll know the chamber is pretty robust.” There’s a trade-off between burn time and weight: Each burn erodes the combustion chamber more. “If you build enough material into it, it will last longer. But as you add more material, it also gets heavier.” And requires more fuel. “So we’ve got to find the right mix.”

The scent of ethanol from the Cal State Long Beach engine drifts over the site. Kevin Baxter, Friends of Amateur Rocketry president, revels in it. “We’re five miles from the nearest human being,” he says. “It’s a magical place.” It’s also an amateur facility unlike most: Surrounding a Quonset structure are horizontal and vertical test stands, two launch towers, propellant storage vaults, and an underground blockhouse with electrical and network connections—all built by volunteers, usually at launch-and-work events. “People come watch a rocket fire,” Baxter says, “then a cement truck shows up.”

FAR’s mission statement promotes rocketry education, for everyone from Boy Scouts to university students. Its mentoring process links amateurs with space industry pros, many of whom launch here recreationally. “Think of all the frustrated engineers shuffling papers in the big aerospace corporations,” Baxter says. Mark Holthaus, an FAR founder, is an example. At Boeing in Huntington Beach, he engineers exotic projects like the X-51A hypersonic engine. Meanwhile he’s got an amateur rocket “in pieces on the living room floor” and spends weekends mentoring students at FAR.

FAR holds high-explosives manufacturing permits from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, as well as Federal Aviation Administration clearance for weekend launches up to 50,000 feet. Solid-propellant amateur rockets have flirted with maximum permissible altitude: a dirt-biker found a university’s 12-foot vehicle, three months after launch, miles from the FAR site. (The higher the altitude, the more the downrange drift, and, ultimately, the more difficult to find.)

Down in the blockhouse, Garvey Spacecraft test conductor Chris Bostwick (a Cal State Long Beach grad) monitors engine status on computer screens and executes the test sequence. John Garvey mans the red kill switch to shut down the engine if a computer locks up. Final propellant temperatures and pressures are logged. A voice on the loudspeakers orders everyone behind cinder-block observation bunkers, earplugs in. Moments later, terminal countdown squawks over the speakers.

The shock wave from 4,500 pounds of thrust rocks the earth. A pale blue exhaust plume lunges more than 20 feet, and an enormous cloud of dust roils across the desert. Ethanol and liquid oxygen rage; seconds click by. After 20, the computer shuts down the engine.

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.”

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