By Douglas Messier
They came to Mojave from near and far — from the dusty desert communities of Lancaster, Boron and Ridgecrest to the snow swept tundra of Sweden — to send Stu Witt off in style. One of the most powerful men in Washington, D.C. played hooky from Congress to wish his friend a happy retirement.
Hundreds of people gathered on Jan. 8 to mark the end of Witt’s nearly 14-year term as CEO and general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port. The event featured a reception and a long parade of friends and colleagues singing his praises.
Jack “C.J.” Connell, an old friend from Witt’s days in the U.S. Navy, recalled how most people viewed the Mojave Airport before Witt took over in 2002.
“The image of Mojave at that time was basically an aircraft boneyard for retired airliners with the exception of something called Scaled Composites and Burt and Dick Rutan,” said Connell, who is executive director of the China Lake Alliance. “But that was the image. Now the image today is those airliners are all gone. Stu has transformed this place from being a boneyard for airliners with a little bit of innovation, technology and development into something that’s seen nationwide and worldwide as something that is the first commercial spaceport. That’s a very admirable thing to do.”
Under Witt’s leadership, the Mojave Airport became America’s first inland spaceport in 2004. It hosted the history flights of SpaceShipOne, which became the first privately funded vehicle to reach space that same year and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Mojave has become a center for the development of advanced space vehicles, with companies like Virgin Galactic, Stratolaunch Sytems, XCOR Aerospace, Masten Space Systems and Interorbital Systems calling it home.
Witt has also seen his share of setbacks, including a test stand explosion that killed three Scaled Composites engineers in 2007 and the loss of SpaceShipTwo and test pilot Mike Alsbury in October 2014. Despite enormous optimism following the SpaceShipOne flights in 2004, Mojave has not seen another spaceflight in more than 11 years.
Speakers praised Witt for his ability to work with others to find mutually beneficial solutions, his willingness to take risks, and his expansive vision for the future of commercial spaceflight.
“You have been a tremendous boss and mentor for me, not just for the past three years, but since I met you nearly 10 years ago,” said Witt’s successor, Karina Drees. “The environment you have created here for the NewSpace industry is an inspiration to so many people around the world. And words can’t describe what an honor it has been to work with a visionary who had developed such a passion for what Mojave has become.”
Dick Rutan, who formerly served on Mojave Airport’s Board of Directors, said writing Witt’s annual performance review was easy.
“We sat down and tried to be brief and profound, but just about every time, every time really, it was a real simple report, it says that Stu Witt has exceeded our expectations,” he said.
Peter Diamandis, chairman X Prize Foundation that awarded the Ansari X Prize, said that while the rest of the world says no, Witt says yes.
“”I didn’t serve on a ship with you, and I didn’t fly in a squadron with you, but we did go into a battle together. A great battle,” Diamandis said. “And there are a lot of amazing entrepreneurs and CEO’s in this room and I think I speak on behalf of all of you, I hope I do, in saying thank you for building a foundation that everyone here can build on top of because that’s what you’ve done. I think the thing that’s most important for you to hear is you made a huge difference, Stu, you made a huge difference to everyone in this room. ”
Marion Blakey, who was FAA Administrator at the time of SpaceShipOne’s flights in 2004, did not attend the event but sent a statement of appreciation that was read aloud.
“I would simply recall those breathless moments in 2004 when you helped launch SpaceShipOne from the Mojave spaceport,” the message read. “Well do I recall all your efforts to ensure a safe and supportive environment for what is still one of the most exciting achievements in the world of space and for the future of our country.
“When the third flight of SpaceShipOne made its successful trajectory I was pleased and proud to be standing in the cold of the Mojave desert with you, Stu Witt, and so many others to witness that wonderful achievement. You were an important enabler of that transcendent event. And for that and so much more, I salute you,” she wrote.
Spaceport Sweden CEO Karin Nilsdotter traveled to Mojave from Kiruna to held send off her friend and colleague.
“The comfort zone they say is a nice place, but nothing ever grows here. Well Mojave for sure is no comfort zone,” she said. “And I would like to start by congratulating you and your team Stuart on what you have accomplished here which is remarkable.
“Mojave has really become the epicenter of the commercial spaceflight industry,” Nilsdotter added. “Your leadership has not only had a regional and a national reach, but your leadership has had a fundamental impact internationally.”
Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria recalled working with Witt during the two years he was president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
“We mostly bonded because Stuart O. Witt is a marvellous human being and a great all around guy. He’s affable, he’s funny, he’s humble, he cares about you,” Lopez-Alegria said. “I learned so much about how to work in Washington just by watching him because he can walk into any member’s office on the Hill unannounced.”
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), traveled from Washington, D.C., for Witt’s sendoff.
“We have session today. Very few people I would ever miss session for,” the House majority leader said. “In fact, I never have. But, I would do it for Stu. There are a few people in your life that affect you. Stu is one of them.”
McCarthy, who is represents Mojave in Congress, called Witt’s vision “limitless.”
“Everything that he has ever done, he has brought people with him,” the Congressman said. “The greatest sign of a great leader is it’s not about him. It’s about his team.”
McCarthy presented Witt with a signed, framed copy of the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that Congress passed last year.
“I may be the author, but the fingerprints of passing the Space Act all have his on it,” McCarthy said.
“It was a helluva ride, folks,” Witt said after all the tributes were done. He recalled his shock when a friend suggested that he apply for the open position of running the Mojave Airport. ”
I thought he was kidding,” Witt said.
He got the job, beating out 96 other applicants who had applied. “I didn’t know if we’d be successful at all, but I told them I’d leave it better than I had found it,” he said.
Witt took over from Dan Sabovich, who had been laid low by a series of strokes.
“It was really sad that I never had an hour’s worth of turnover from the man who spent 32 years running this place,” Witt said of Sabovich. “So, I had to figure it out pretty much on my own with the help of the staff. The one thing Dan told me was never have an airshow. I remember that, very clear as day. For some reason, he didn’t want to have an airshow. And then that was about it. And I was always perplexed by that.
“I said today to Harold or somebody, It’s unfortunate to me that Dan couldn’t be here today. Because what Dan started was brilliant. it’s just really really unfortunate to me that the man who had the original vision couldn’t see what I’m looking at,” Witt said.
Witt said he felt his tenure had been successful and predicted a bright future for the spaceport.
“I look around the room and it’s just absolutely fascinating to me to think what you can accomplish,” Witt said. “And I’ll tell you, whoever said it long before me, it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. Because you’re going to get your share of the credit. Just focus on outcomes.
“You never want to miss an opportunity to bet on tomorrow, and to position yourself for tomorrow, and to try to be a couple of moves ahead of everyone else.”