Popular Science Pays a Visit to Mojave

Sunset from the Mojave Air and Space Port, Oct. 30, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Sunset from the Mojave Air and Space Port, Oct. 30, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Popular Science sent Sarah Scoles to Mojave to check out the place. It’s always hard to parachute into a town and completely understand what it’s about, but she does good job of capturing how the sky high ambitions of the spaceport and its billionaire backers contrast with the dilapidated and sometimes desperate state of the town that adjoins it.

Science Takes Off: What Happens When The Space Industry Collides With A Tiny Town?

There are a few minor issues with it. For one, she overstates the number of boarded up buildings in the town. There are far more occupied structures than ones with plywood over their windows. And one of the goals of the Mojave revitalization effort is not to bust up the sidewalks we have, but to build them where there are not any — which is most of the town.

I was surprised to find that the Mojave Makers are still operating. (It surprised one of the few remaining makers in town, too.) I also didn’t know you could see the Space Studies Institute from your backyard around here. Actually, you can’t.

Scoles discusses the efforts to revitalize the town that have been on-going for several years. There have been some improvements, but there is still a long way to go. One of Mojave’s key problems is its small size, which means it can’t support very many amenities. Until it gets more amenities, not a lot of people will want to live here. For the airport to do its thing, the population around here can’t grow that large.

The revitalization effort is also being done by volunteers, with some funding from Kern County for specific programs. Volunteer efforts can be difficult to maintain over the long run. The town of Mojave is unincorporated, which means it has no local government of its own. It’s a ward of the county, whose administrative center is 60 miles on the other side of a mountain range.

While these volunteer efforts have been underway, Mojave Spaceport CEO/General Manager Stu Witt has been pursuing his own plan:

Witt’s ultimate solution is different from the others’. It’s not necessarily to pour new sidewalk, meet up for movie nights, or help local businesses thrive. “I have suggested openly to some very high net-worth humans on Earth that they consider buying the town of Mojave and turning it into Tomorrowland, a utopian community that’s co-located with the space port so you could target, attract, and retain tomorrow’s workforce,” he says. “And have bike paths.”

It sounds good. Then you realize that in buying the town, the new billionaire owner will likely be kicking out a whole lot of people who can barely afford the low cost of living Mojave provides. The visuals on that aren’t going to be very positive for said billionaire’s image.

The other problem is that once said billionaire buys the town, he would be responsible for fixing and maintaining all of it. For a  town as dilapidated as Mojave, that is non-trivial.  There’s a whole lot to fix and maintain around here. And businesses generally hate having to pay for basic infrastructure.

There’s also a very specific issue with company towns: they often die when the company does. Suppose the billionaire owner’s company goes out of business,  relocates to Texas or Florida, or simply decides it doesn’t want to be in the space industry anymore after blowing a fortune on some ill-conceived program.  Then what do you have? The town would empty out like a balloon that’s been popped.

The High Desert is already full of things like this. There’s the ruins of Saltdale that once supported a salt extraction operation on Koehn Lake. And the largely abandoned village of Cantil, which had some purpose at some point or another. Numerous ghost towns that rose and fell with the mining industry blot the landscape.

Mojave itself has seen its ups and downs, first with the railroads, mining and 20 mule trains hauling borax. Then it got a giant boost when the Marine Corps took over the airport during World War II. When the military left, the airport was a shell of its former self until it became a civilian test center.

There are no easy solutions to Mojave’s problems. It’s going to take a lot of hard to bring the town back.