I am making my way from Santa Clara to back to Mojave this afternoon. It’s a trip that will take about five hours and cover roughly 300 miles, but the distance traveled cannot be measured solely in time and distance. Instead, it is a voyage between two very different cultures.
Silicon Valley is a green, leafy place with shiny office buildings where talented engineers sit in cubicles writing software that makes billions of dollars. That software has helped to make user-friendly computers ubiquitous and connected the world via the Internet.
Silicon Valley has long since transitioned from the days where engineers labored in garages to produce the first personal computers. Most of the hardware production has all be shipped away to be done by low-wage workers in distant locales.
Much is made of risk taking in Silicon Valley. Millions are risked every year on start-ups that promise to change the world. Most of those companies will fail, losing money for their backers. Others will succeed, becoming the next Facebook or Apple. The rest will end up someone in the vast gulf between obscene wealth and abject bankruptcy.
By contrast, the dusty desert town of Mojave is all about hardware, and the risk are not simply monetary. Talented engineers huddle in hangars — some new, others quite old — building some of the most advanced flying machines known to man. They use computers and software to design it, but the vehicles are flown the old fashioned way — by test pilots who, as Tom Wolfe put it, are able to hang it out over the edge and pull it back at the last possible moment.
Wolfe was writing about an earlier generation of pilots who flew from the 1940’s to the 1960’s just down the road from Mojave at Edwards Air Force Base. Much has changed since then — better computing power, advanced flight simulation programs, exotic composites — yet much remains the same. Mojave remains focused — like Edwards and the Silicon Valley of old — on hardware. The space planes being developed there are descendents of the vehicles that earlier generation of pilots flew. The new vehicles have the DNA of the X-15, X-20 and M2-F3 baked into them.
Yet, the purpose is very different. The goal is not to simply to explore the outside of the flight envelope but develop a new commercial industry, one with the potential to produce billion-dollar industries and make access to space routine and affordable.The transition taking place in the desert could one day rival the successive revolutions in computing that have occurred in Silicon Valley.
It’s a fascinating thing to watch. And it makes the trip to the desert worth it.