BY STEVEN MAYER
Californian staff writer
MOJAVE AIR & SPACE PORT — Aerospace types love this rural desert location for its clear, dry weather, its sparse population and its comfortable distance from major news outlets.
But Dave Masten, CEO of Masten Space Systems, says there’s another reason his company stays in Mojave.
“The neighbors don’t complain,” Masten says with a grin.
“Even if you’re testing a rocket engine,” he says. “And rocket tests can be very loud.”
Long known as a place where space cowboys and scientist-entrepreneurs could carve out a niche in the specialized world of aviation and aerospace, Mojave Air & Space Port has grown — some might say grown up — in recent years to include ambitious, well-funded companies that are expected to deliver on the promise that the sky is no longer the limit when it comes to private space flight.
“Mojave is the premier place for civilian flight research and testing in the United States,” says Jeff Greason, chief executive of XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave-based company focused on the research, development and production of reusable launch vehicles and rocket propulsion systems.
Greason calls Mojave “the Silicon Valley of the private space industry.”
But the success of the 3,300-acre airport as an economic hot spot, even in the midst of a global economic cooldown, can be attributed to more than aerospace activities. Light industry and manufacturing, renewable energy and service industry tenants have combined with the higher-tech firms to bring steadiness and diversity to the airport’s humming economy.
An agency selling life insurance may not be as sexy as a rocket shop developing a private space shuttle or a lunar lander, but air & space port CEO and General Manager Stu Witt is happy to welcome both to the mix.
Aerospace represents about half of Mojave’s business, a significantly larger percentage than a few years ago, Witt says. But like any healthy investment portfolio, diversification has proved a major asset for the facility.
When Witt came to Mojave nearly 10 years ago, the airport had about 14 business tenants generating a few hundred jobs.
Today there are more than 65 tenants and close to 2,500 jobs, with more coming.
Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner, whose 2nd District includes Mojave, said the prevailing attitude at the space port has been critical to its success.
“The attitude is to give people the freedom to fail or succeed,” Scrivner says. “People are proud of what’s going on out there.
“You can hear about it. You can read about it,” he adds. “But seeing it is one step beyond.”
Witt, a graduate of the Navy’s “TOPGUN” program — he flew the F-14 Tomcat and the F/A-18 Hornet — is thrilled by the progress he’s charted in Mojave. But there’s a wariness beneath the surface, a concern that forces beyond his control could stick a pin in the balloon.
“Every facility is filled, and we’re building more,” Witt says of the airport’s 100 percent occupancy. “It’s a good-news story but it could change overnight.”
ONE GIANT LEAP FOR TOURISM?
As NASA cedes some of its former glory — and funding — to rocket scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the private sector, this tiny desert burg 60 miles east of Bakersfield may be on the cusp of history.
The Spaceship Company’s September opening of a massive 68,000-square-foot production hangar in Mojave was a sign of the times.
The project reflected a multi-million-dollar commitment to doing business in eastern Kern County.
A joint venture between Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Mojave-based Scaled Composites, TSC and its hangar will support the production and assembly of Virgin’s fleet of spaceships and the support aircraft they will use as flying launch platforms.
The fleet is designed to carry ordinary people into space at $200,000 a pop — although those who can afford to cross this adventure off their bucket list may not be so ordinary, financially speaking.
Still, nearly 500 reservations have so far been made by people wishing to take that suborbital joyride, generating some $60 million in deposits. This is proof positive, Virgin officials say, that the market is real.
Heady stuff, indeed, building spaceships to carry accountants and stock brokers into the black ether of space.
Such a grand and complex endeavor may seem like an end in itself, but Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides says he and Branson have more in mind than space tourism.
Revolutionizing international air travel is just one possible innovation they hope will spring from the changes now taking place.
“What we aspire to is really changing the game of space,” Whitesides says.
And Mojave Air & Space Port is at the epicenter of that change.
“Mojave is where personal spaceflight was born,” Whitesides says, referring to the famed X Prize flights by SpaceShipOne in 2004.
Locating its production facility in close proximity to partner Scaled Composites was a must, the CEO says. But the business-friendly attitude at the airport and the airport district also went a long way toward making them feel that Mojave was the right choice.
“I can’t say enough about Stu Witt’s efforts to create an atmosphere of support,” Whitesides says.
SpaceShipTwo has already undergone some 16 glide test flights. (Like the space shuttle, SS2 will land unpowered.) And numerous rocket engine tests have been completed on the ground.
“We’re excited to be preparing for the first powered flight later this year,” Whitesides says.
The first customer flights are expected to be launched in 2013 from Spaceport America in New Mexico, Whitesides says.
Some observers are quietly skeptical that Virgin can meet that schedule.
But Whitesides’ priority is safety first. Then timing.
He knows an accident could be a devastating setback for the entire industry.
“We all want to go into operation as soon as we can, no question,” he says. “But it’s even more important that we get started in this industry in a safe way.”
Branson and his family will be on the first commercial flight.
On a recent morning in Mojave, Witt dons his hard hat and drives out to a new construction work site. Two massive fabrication and hangar facilities are being built for a company funded by Seattle billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Stratolaunch Systems aims to launch payloads into orbit from what will be the largest aircraft ever flown, with a wingspan that will easily exceed the length of a football field.
Witt visits the site every day.
“You get what you inspect, not what you expect,” he explains in one of the characteristic phrases some of his friends and colleagues call “stuisms.”
“What’s happening here in Mojave is disruptive technology,” Witt says. “Harnessing fire, the wheel, the Internet,” Witt says, “those were all disruptive to humanity.”
Just as the Model T Ford disrupted the market for horse-drawn vehicles and streetcars, so private space flight will likely bring unforeseen changes to the government-sponsored system that has been the model in space flight for more than 50 years, Witt suggests.
Other innovations could impact the commercial airline industry, the military and possibly other markets.
“To do the same thing at far less expense,” he says of commercial space flight, “that’s a radical change.”
On the west side of the airport, several huge cranes lift massive metal cylinders from railcars and load them on flatbed semitrailers.
“Four of those things make a tower for a wind turbine,” Witt says.
The components for the huge turbines arrive by rail. Eventually they are loaded onto trucks and taken to the spot where they will be assembled — and ultimately where they will begin generating electricity for the great megalopolis to the south.
Acres of land at the airport are covered with the cylinders, as well as the 153-foot blades and other stored components that make up the hundreds of wind machines being erected in the nearby Tehachapi Mountains.
Several men wearing hardhats work nearby. Each one represents a job, Witt says.
And each piece of equipment stored on the airport grounds represents revenue.
“This is just dirt,” Witt says as he makes his way back to his SUV. “But this dirt is worth 2 1â2 cents a square foot per month.”
THE CALIFORNIA FACTOR
Even as this once-obscure little desert outpost is growing into an important center of commercial aerospace, Witt is worried.
Can it last? He asks.
“I’ve spent 10 years of my life adding jobs in Mojave,” he says. “I don’t want to see that ruined by policies in Sacramento.”
High taxes. Onerous regulation. Bureaucratic inflexibility.
Despite the state’s many obvious assets, Witt argues these issues have the potential to end California’s once-dominant position as a capital of industry and innovation.
“California is ranked 50th of 50 states in business friendliness,” Witt says. “XCOR told me they’ve been romanced by at least five states that are inviting them to relocate.”
The recent move to Mojave by The Spaceship Company and Stratolaunch Systems seems to fly in the face of such an argument.
And Dave Masten — whom Witt calls “one of the new Einsteins” — says Mojave and California are home.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Masten says.
“Yes, California has a much higher tax and regulatory environment than other states. But it still has a lot to offer,” he says. “It kind of balances it out.”
Greason at XCOR is not so sure.
Despite the success Mojave has seen, “the risk element is California,” he says.
“I am constantly approached by representatives of other states asking me if I would consider moving our operations,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the incredible assets of Mojave, I would say yes.”
Greason, whose company is also developing a spaceplane to carry paying customers to space, notes with annoyance that OSHA, the federal agency charged with the enforcement of safety and health legislation, wasn’t tough enough for California. So lawmakers created Cal-OSHA.
Same story with the EPA.
Asked for specifics, Greason cited 2-year-old regulations designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
“All of a sudden I was required to track however many gallons of whatever fuels I burned,” he says.
Greason says the primary job of three of his employees is to help XCOR remain in compliance with regulations. That’s an expense that could instead be dedicated toward the company’s core mission.
Whitesides acknowledges California’s reputation for business unfriendliness, but, like Masten, says Mojave’s considerable assets outweigh any downside.
Still, Witt believes California could lose its competitive edge if it’s not careful.
“We’re just trying,” he says, “to save California from California.”
Republished with permission from The Bakersfield Californian. © 2012 The Bakersfield Californian, all rights reserved.