Welcome to Rocketville, USA
The tiny town of Mojave, Calif., could become the Silicon Valley of spaceflight.
(Business 2.0) – If you want to view the entrepreneurial future of space travel, start in Los Angeles. Drive 100 miles northeast until you reach sun-baked Mojave (population 3,800). Head to the local airport. Don't expect to see launchpads or fancy command centers--there are none to be found. Yet history is being made here: In 2004 the Federal Aviation Administration certified Mojave Airport as a civilian spaceport. Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, has its headquarters near the runways, and it was from here that his SpaceShipOne became the first private spacecraft to carry a passenger beyond the stratosphere.
Rutan isn't alone. His neighbors include a handful of other space-related ventures, and together this cluster of startups resembles nothing so much as the early pioneers of the computing industry back in the days when tech companies first began setting up shop among the prune orchards of what would later be called Silicon Valley. This isn't to say that the atmosphere at Mojave is chummy; the firms housed here are fierce competitors. "We share information with each other about as much as Boeing exchanges information with Lockheed," says Randa Milliron, who works at spaceport tenant Interorbital Systems.
What matters most, however, is that Mojave is already home to a critical mass of talent dedicated to the task of reducing the cost and complexity of space travel. These are the players to watch.
SPECIALTY: Spacecraft components
Interorbital is attempting to launch the first spacecraft that can carry six passengers into orbit for seven days. The $30 million Neptune Spaceliner, which could take flight in 2008, is funded by sales of rocket designs and guidance systems. Additional funds will come from selling payload space on the company's Sea Star microsatellite launcher, due to blast off in 2007.
TRANS LUNAR RESEARCH
SPECIALTY: Moon habitation
EMPLOYEES: 25 volunteers
This nonprofit foundation, run out of Interorbital's office, has an ambitious goal: to establish a civilian station on the surface of the Moon that will become a base for lunar mining, energy extraction, and exploration. Funded by private donations, Trans Lunar plans to issue grants to support the development of propulsion systems, habitation technology, and oxygen extraction equipment.
SPECIALTY: Rocket engines
Xcor's EZRocket is a reusable engine powered by liquid oxygen and rubbing alcohol that has already been flight-tested. Applications range from propelling airplanes in the Rocket Racing League (which gets under way in September) to powering the Xerus, a suborbital spaceliner being developed with funding from private investors and the government.
SPECIALTY: Launch systems
EMPLOYEES: 2,900 (8 in Mojave)
Orbital is a publicly traded company with revenues of $680 million and a main office in Virginia. Its Mojave facility is focused on the deployment of its Pegasus rocket system, which is designed to be drop-launched from an aircraft flying at 40,000 feet. That makes it possible to place satellites in low orbit for $31 million, a fraction of the cost of vertical launches. Pegasus has already flown 36 times.
From the March 1, 2006 issue