On the weekend of October 21, after a Saturday visit to the site of Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and a Sunday visit to Blue Origin's West Texas Commercial Launch Site near Van Horn Texas, I flew to Las Vegas for a week of socializing and playing cards with a friend of mine and his wife. They both worked on Monday, so I decided to drive out to the Mojave Airport and Civilian Aerospace Test Center -- a/k/a the Mojave Spaceport -- in Mojave, California. It wasn't until I reached Primm that I realized that I had forgotten my camera, but I decided to press on without returning to Las Vegas to retrieve my camera, considering that there is no shortage of images from Mojave published to the web.
Mojave, California is a small desert town of 3,836 a 1.5 hour drive (100 miles) North of Los Angeles, and a 3.5 hour drive (225 miles) Southwest of Las Vegas. The town is on the Southwest edge of the Mojave Desert, from which it gains its name. Even though the town is small and "out in the middle of nowhere," it is not at all isolated. As stated, it is near the major cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Also, it is near several hotbeds of aviation research -- it is a half-hour drive South to Palmdale, the location of Lockheed-Martin's Skunk Works, among other companies, and is adjacent to Edwards Air Force Base, the primary Air Force flight testing and research facility. It wasn't until I passed an entrance to Edwards AFB that it hit home to me how close Mojave is to all of this aviation research and development.
I drove into town and my first impression was surprisingly favorable. Mojave is much less desolate than some would have you believe, and much livelier than my small home town, for instance. The joke is that the aerospace companies at the airport have office pools for how long it takes before the wife of a new hire stops crying about living in Mojave. But even if the wives don't like living in Mojave, it's nothing that driving commutes won't cure. Even city slickers should be able to cope.
The airport appears to be the center of attention in town, and it was easy to find my way. At the airport, there is an industrial park that contains various aviation and non-aviation businesses. The businesses near the runway are the crown jewels: among them Scaled Composites, BAE Systems, and XCor Aerospace. Scaled Composites, the company that designed and manufactured SpaceShipOne and is designing SpaceShipTwo for first commercial flight in 2008, appears to be the biggest shop at the airport. Besides driving along the rows of business warehouses, there's not much to tour at the airport, so I decided to take in lunch at the Voyager Cafe, the airport's greasy spoon. The cafe has several nice large picture windows with a view of the tarmac and is comfortably welcoming, so I took my time people-watching. The lunch crowd was busy with engineers and others.
The walls of the cafe are lined with pictures of pilots and their aircraft that were tested at the airport over the decades. It struck me that nobody on the walls was involved with rocketry, even though that's where in many ways private spaceflight was born. The implication is that when Mojave's engineers look at the problem of getting to space and back, they look at is an aviation problem, not a rocketry problem. Their intellectual heritage doesn't really include people like von Braun or Goddard. In this sense, Mojave represents a unique view in the entrepreneurial space business. For example, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Armadillo Aerospace, are all rocketry companies. Interestingly, a few rocketry companies, such as XCor and Masten Space Systems, have been pulled into the Mojave orbit. I have no doubt that in the next few years, the competition between the aviators and rocketeers will produce some interesting results.
As I was standing in line to pay my bill for lunch, an older, apparently retired woman got out of line in front of me and said to "go ahead, you probably need to get back to work." I thanked her and explained that I was only a tourist in town to visit the spaceport. She nodded knowingly and with a twinkle in her eye said "come back to visit us in '08." I think I will do just that.