The Mojave Launch Lab

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

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

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?’ ”

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