A Busy Summer Looms for Masten

The Xaero vehicle during assembly November 2010. (Credit: Masten Space Systems)

A couple of weeks back, I took an excursion down to Mojave to see what’s happening in that hotbed of rocket innovation. I had the pleasure of meeting with Masten Space Systems’ Nathan O’Konek, who filled me in on the latest developments with the company and gave me a tour of one of its test sites.

We met at Masten’s headquarters at the Mojave Air & Space Port. The company is located in a 1940’s-era building that was part of the motor pool when the facility was a Marine Air Corps base. The structure is not much to look at, either inside or outside, but that’s nothing unusual for a small start-up: both Apple and Google started in garages.

O’Konek showed me around and briefed me on the very busy summer ahead. Masten plans to fly demo flights from Cape Canaveral in Florida under a $400,000 contract with Space Florida as well as conduct separate launches under NASA’s CRuSR program. The aim is to transition from low-level hover flights to high-altitudes and, eventually, suborbital trips.

A Masten rocket engine under development.

When we talked, the company was still negotiating dates for these flights with Space Florida and NASA. One key issue was when the Xaero rocket would be ready to fly solo. The rocket has been undergoing a series of tethered flights. O’Konek said the company was close to a solo flight, but it was being very careful before cutting the cord. (Xaero made its first free flight today, as it turn out.)

A rocket engine test rig.

O’Konek said there is a lot of interest in the company’s suborbital launch services for sending experiments into space and testing flight hardware. There’s also interest in the company’s plume impingement testbed, which has been funded under a NASA SBIR contract. The testbed allows for the simulation of rocket plume interactions with simulated lunar, martian and asteroid surfaces. Engineers are able to test in-situ regolith surface treatment, plume deflection, ground effect mitigation technologies, and launch/landing pad designs.

After we talked, O’Konek drove me out to a test site located out in the desert scrub brush out beyond the Mojave Air & Space Port’s runways. All the rocket companies in Mojave have test sites in this area connected to each other by a series of dusty and rutted dirt roads.

A scorched Masten test pad with a control area protected by blocks behind it.

The Masten test site has a very simple setup, with a pair of landing/launch pads and a control bunker protected by massive blocks. One of the landing pads has simulated lunar rocks that were required for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge that Masten won.

A landing pad with simulated lunar rocks used for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

I took photos from inside the car; there wasn’t anything there to see that required me to get out. For that, I was thankful. It was a typically hot day in the desert, with the unrelenting sun beating down through clear blue skies. Temperatures had already soared into the 90’s, and it wasn’t even noon yet. I gained a greater admiration for anyone who could work in that heat day in and day out.

A recent transplant to Mojave, O’Konek was not as bothered by the heat. Mojave is a great place to test with excellent support for airport officials, he told me. The location was remote enough that you don’t bother anyone (and vice versa), but close enough to Lancaster and Los Angeles that the company can quickly obtain supplies and parts.

As we drove back, I was struck by the simplicity of everything I had seen. And it hit me that this was the whole point. Masten isn’t trying to reinvent the rocket per se; its goal is to create a rocket that can be flown repeatedly at low cost and without major overhauls. Scientists will be able to regularly send experiments into space using a system that more resembles FedEx and the complicated, time-consuming systems we use today. If Masten can pull that off, it will be a game changer.

It all seemed like a throwback to the days of the X-1, when Chuck Yeager and Jack Ridley teamed up to smash the seemingly unbreakable sound barrier. They had worked not very far away, and in conditions that were even more primitive than they are today. But, they didn’t need that much. Just the right people and a good place to fly.  And that was — and still is — over the Mojave.