W.J. Hennigan Seattle Times
Mojave Rocketeers Evoke Early Days of Aviation
October 13, 2012
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  • MOJAVE, Calif. — Inside one of the bustling ramshackle hangars at the Mojave Air & Space Port, 23-year-old Kyle Nyberg is tightening dozens of stainless-steel nuts that make up the innards of the rocket sitting before him.

    As the searing desert heat creeps in through an open door, beads of sweat form on Nyberg’s brow. Dirt coats his baseball cap and his black gym shoes threaded with neon green laces. Some of his fingers are wrapped with ragged bandages.

    But the young aeronautical engineer is smiling. He knows the 12-foot rocket is set to blast off any day now.

    “How many guys do you know who get to launch rockets three days a week and get paid for it?” he asks. “I wouldn’t give this up for anything.”

    Nyberg, just a year out of college, is one of scores of young rocket scientists, aerospace engineers and technicians who have come to work at this former World War II military base to build the next generation of spacecraft.

    For half a century, venturing into space has been the primary domain of governments that can afford to spend billions of dollars developing and sending massive rockets into the final frontier. Today, private companies are eagerly competing to capitalize on and profit from the governmental feats.

    The 3,300-acre site with a two-mile-long runway has been transformed into an energetic commercial-space hub, drawing projects bankrolled by British billionaire Richard Branson, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and other aerospace visionaries.

    With technological advances that they say will make rocketry more affordable, these new companies are focusing on an array of ventures such as lifting space tourists briefly into sub-orbit and launching satellites and cargo far into space.

    Companies at Mojave are trying to make space travel for tourists as common as cross-country commercial-airline flights. In addition, they’re trying to win NASA contracts. The space agency has begun hiring privately funded startup companies for spacecraft development and outsourcing missions.

    Nyberg builds and designs a new line of rockets at Masten Space Systems. The autonomous vertical-landing rockets zoom to high altitudes and return under rocket power, testing technologies in the upper atmosphere for a variety of organizations, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    Mojave is not the only place where this kind of experimentation is under way, but what’s going on in the desert is reminiscent of aviation 100 years ago in Los Angeles, said Peter Westwick, author of “Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California.”

    In the early days of aviation, pioneers such as Jack Northrop, Howard Hughes, Donald Douglas and the Lockheed brothers started companies clustered around rural airfields throughout the Southland.

    “They were all young entrepreneurial risk takers,” Westwick said. “That’s the same spirit you see coming from Mojave today.”

    Desolate stretch

    Mojave Air & Space Port’s warren of nearly 100 wind-worn hangars sits just off a desolate stretch of Interstate 14, amid the dusty landscape dotted with sage brush and gnarled Joshua trees.

    Those driving by may dismiss the area as a hellish and inhospitable desert, but this truck-stop town (population 4,238) has thrived from the arrival of rocketeers and new-age industrialists. There are 69 companies at Mojave Air & Space Port — most of them aerospace-related — bringing about 2,500 jobs, some of them going to local residents.

    Kern County Economic Development says the spaceport’s growth has contributed to Kern being named by the Department for Labor Statistics as the No. 1 county for employment growth in the nation in 2012.

    “Communities across the country are increasingly looking at spaceports as magnets for economic development,” Westwick said. “Luckily for Southern California, entrepreneurial risk-takers decided to settle here early on.”

    Companies are drawn here for a variety of reasons. There’s the wide-open stretches of desert where rockets can be tested. There’s the long runway, which allows easy takeoffs for planes loaded with rockets that have to be launched from high altitudes. And there are few neighbors to complain about the noise — though the spaceport is only about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

    This is where new spacecraft are tested daily. It’s where the world’s first commercial production plant for passenger-ready spaceships resides. It is also where Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems is breaking ground on a facility to manufacture the world’s biggest airplane, which has six jumbo jet engines.

    It is only fitting. The story of modern aviation has played out here for decades.

    Test pilot Chuck Yeager first blasted through the sound barrier nearly seven decades ago at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. The military continues to test high-tech aircraft there. Beyond that is the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake, where researchers develop and test some of the most advanced weaponry.

    Mojave emerged as a commercial space hot spot in 2004 after a team led by Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer at Scaled Composites, won the $10 million X-Prize purse by sending a test pilot to the edge of space. With that, the commercial space race was under way.

    The prizewinning spacecraft caught the eye of Branson, who wanted to work with Rutan on a much bigger rocket ship that could send not only a pilot into space but also fare-paying passengers.

    The enterprise had been shrouded in secrecy. Then in 2007, during a test of the spaceship’s propulsion system, an explosion killed three workers and injured three others. The blast exposed the project and reminded the public of the inherent risks of rocketry.

    Last year, Branson and Scaled Composites built a 68,000-square-foot facility at the spaceport for a joint venture, called Spaceship Co., to mass-produce its rocket ship and carrier aircraft. It was one of the first aircraft assembly plants to be built in the region in decades.

    These days, the popularity of the spaceport has created a scramble to find hangars. Jeff Greason, chief executive of space tourism firm XCOR Aerospace, heard a rumor that there was a hangar opening up. He ran to the main office to sign up.

    “When I got there, I was in line behind seven people,” Greason said. “It was unbelievable.”

    Finding a decent house is hard, and many are in disrepair. When David Rawley, an engineer at Spaceship, wanted to buy a home in town, he had to write an essay to the seller on why he — and not other potential buyers — deserved the house. His essay won out.

    Most spaceport workers live in surrounding towns. Nyberg lives about 20 miles away in Tehachapi. There’s also Rosamond and Lancaster, which Doug Shane, president of Scaled Composites, calls “New York City compared to Mojave.”

    ‘Mojave Makers’

    The lack of distractions has led aerospace workers to come up with their own fun. Some of the engineers created a club called “Mojave Makers” to build robots, modify automobiles and race homemade drones.

    Shane estimates that men outnumber women about 9 to 1 at the spaceport despite the companies’ efforts to recruit female engineers.

    Mojave’s appeal comes down to young rocketeers, like Nyberg, of Masten Space, who say they want a hands-on place to work: building machines, often outside, and personally putting the finishing touches on rockets and other spacecraft.

    “I get to work with my hands all day, which is sweet,” Nyberg said. Before he turned up here, Nyberg interned at a Boeing plant near Seattle and helped design propulsion systems for the 777 commercial jet at a computer workstation. He never picked up a tool.

    Now he tinkers in a cluttered 8,600-square-foot hangar, working nine- and 10-hour days to fine-tune the company’s hardware.

    Last month, Masten Space experienced a setback when one of its rockets exploded after launch. Nyberg and his colleagues were visibly disappointed. But within minutes, the crew was busy building the next rocket.

    “Mishaps are bound to happen — that’s part of the business we’re in,” Nyberg said. “You learn from your mistakes and move on to building the next one.”

    The past and the future here are perhaps best represented by Stuart Witt. The former Top Gun Navy pilot is general manager of the Mojave Air & Space Port.

    “Orville and Wilbur went to Kitty Hawk for three reasons: freedom from encroachment of the press, freedom from industrial espionage, and a steady breeze,” he said. “All three are available in Mojave.”