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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.

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(Continued from page 3)

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?’

“The culture in the traditional U.S. aerospace industry looks a lot like the culture of other industries, circa 1960,” Greason says—large, specialized, and compartmentalized. Even private launch ventures like SpaceX dwarf XCOR. Expendable vehicles require a large organization, he explains, “but reusable vehicles like the Lynx can’t have one or they aren’t economically successful.” He’s not competing with big NASA launch contractors like SpaceX—he’s applauding their efforts: “I would love to see that business recaptured by American companies.”

At current projections, a Lynx ticket will cost $95,000—half the price of Virgin Galactic’s. Based on industry predictions of commercial spaceflight demand, “hundreds of people a year will buy a ticket into space at any price,” Greason says. He points out the burgeoning market for opportunities to climb Mt. Everest at prices up to $100,000, where some percentage of customers die every year “and 100 percent are absolutely miserable. There are roller coasters more physically stressful than this,” he says. “And besides, it’s space.”

Tourists or participants, Greason believes ticket-holders won’t be joyriders. “Most will be doing it because they have the same sense I had when I started the company: that space is important, that it’s part of the future, and they want to be a part of the early days of it.”

At the Friends of Amateur Rocketry test site, tanks are purged and the engine is refueled. An igniter fails; then a regulator that controls external helium tanks pressurizing the propellants falters. In the blockhouse, Eric Besnard troubleshoots with Garvey as repressurizations are attempted. A Friends of Amateur Rocketry mentor out at the test stand settles it: “The regulator is done for.” Not a deal-breaker, but subsequent firings must revert to “blow-down” mode without external helium pressure, relying solely on helium pumped into the smaller internal propellant tanks and limiting duration. The next burn lasts just 15 seconds, another only 13. Later, as we roll away from the site in a cloud of dust, the Garvey-Cal State Long Beach team is still reaching for the critical 60.

Though state incentives lured Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo from California to a base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America, Richard Branson says Mojave reigns as the R&D gateway: “It will become the center of experimentation for the new space community as it matures over the next decade.” Stuart Witt believes that in a safe society, risk-taking is an endangered thing. “But it’s alive in these hangars,” he says. “We need to pick winners and losers and get on with it.” He leans back and looks out again at Mojave’s surface-to-infinity blue.

It’s after dark when John Garvey sends me a text message from his Blackberry: “Done. We are out of fuel. 77 seconds.”

Frequent contributor Stephen Joiner writes about aerospace from his home in southern California. His last feature, about aircraft repossessions, appeared in the April/May 2010 issue.

Contributing editor and photographer Chad Slattery specializes in aerospace subjects. He is based in Los Angeles.

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