IN SEPTEMBER 2004, I DRAGGED my 14-year-old son out of bed before 5 a.m. In the predawn darkness, we headed north, arriving two hours later at Mojave Airport, where a crowd of 20,000 had gathered.
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Alien craft: Like two jets joined at the wings, powerful White Knight Two will haul SpaceShipTwo to 48,000 feet for its launches into space.
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Champagne gets loose on Sir Richard Branson in Mojave.
The early-morning silence was broken as a gleaming white aircraft, the White Knight, took off. High above us, the big plane released its payload: Propelled by its rocket engine, the Volkswagen-sized SpaceShipOne rose out of sight as it climbed 300,000 feet to the edge of space. The tiny spaceship glided home and into history, ultimately winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for successful private space travel and later flying into the Smithsonian.
Clearly, this was the best excuse ever for ditching Walter Reed Middle School.
Impressed by the success of the dreamers in the desert, another dreamer, entrepreneur Richard Branson, allied his Virgin Galactic space start-up with Burt Rutan’s firm, Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipOne.
Four years later, the press was back at Mojave this summer, traveling on a Virgin America airliner with space celebrities like Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, and Peter Diamandis, the tireless Santa Monica–based space promoter who created the X Prize and is now launching the Rocket Racing League to create $1 million rocket planes capable of racing each other à la NASCAR.
Branson and company arranged the press junket to promote the initial launch of “Eve,” the giant, four-engine, double-hulled white mother ship that looks like two jets joined at the wings and will transport Virgin Galactic’s upcoming SpaceShipTwo to its high-altitude launches. It was also Branson’s tribute to his 92-year-old mother, Eve, a former flight attendant, who popped the cork on the christening champagne.
SpaceShipTwo will carry six passengers and two pilots, reaching a speed of up to 2,600 miles per hour as it flies 60 miles high. Once they get up there, the passengers can unstrap and float for a few moments. The maiden flight has been reserved for the Branson family.
After that, if testing goes well, passengers who’ve paid deposits on the $200,000 ticket price, like Talia Page, 27, of New York, might be flying to — and floating in — suborbital space by 2011. Page wants to use her flight to raise awareness for international nonprofits. “Safety is a concern, but I love adventure and don’t mind a little risk.”
George Whiteside, 34, of Washington, D.C., put down $400,000. “For $400 K, my wife and I could have the first honeymoon in space, or the first anniversary. I’ve always wanted to go to space. It’s the next thing in human history — a transformative experience. People can drive up from L.A. and watch the future being made. It’s like restarting the flame.”
Despite the “space tourist” hype, Scaled Composites and other space start-ups have a second, even more solid business opportunity — providing space-flight services to NASA, which is planning to retire the aging Space Shuttle by 2010, with successor vehicles not available until 2014 or later.
“The private sector is going to be strongly subsidized by the government because we need redundant access of humans to space,” predicts former astronaut Aldrin.
Jeff Greason, CEO of Mojave-based XCOR Aerospace, who builds light, powerful rocket engines, says his company’s business plan includes both “space tourists” and suborbital payloads for private customers, the Navy, the Air Force, NASA and the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Although not a return to Cold War prosperity, the new space push is bringing some fairly unusual new jobs to Southern California. The world’s first commercial space suit was recently unveiled for XCOR — designed by a Hollywood costume maker.
BEHIND AN AUTO-BODY SHOP in the San Fernando Valley toils Hollywood costume creator turned space-suit builder Chris Gilman. His old brick warehouse is packed with creatures from Ninja warriors and aliens to Vampirella look-alikes. But it’s the space suits that catch your eye.
Gilman’s father was a self-taught engineer whose company, which worked for NASA, lost 80 percent of its business when the Apollo program was canceled. The younger Gilman went to Hollywood, where he created costumes for such epics as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Meet the Spartans. Gilman won a 1991 Academy Award for developing the Actor Climate System, or “cool suit,” which keeps actors from sweltering under fake fur, feathers or plastic.
NASA was so impressed with the space suits he designed for Deep Impact and HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon that it contacted Gilman for design advice. The new, Washington, D.C.–based company he co-founded, Orbital Outfitters, worked on the redesign of the External Mobility Unit — an important element of space suits — so that it now properly fits the smallest U.S. astronauts.
It’s all part of the purported new dedication at NASA to “faster, better, cheaper” solutions. Gilman says NASA officials were shocked when “we did the mockup in three weeks” of the spacesuit redesign.
Orbital has also created for XCOR a slick, lightweight white pressure suit designed to protect space travelers from radiation, drastic temperature changes and vacuum conditions.
“We can build audio and video recording into a suit, or a phone, so you can call your friends from space,” says Gilman. More importantly, “It’s about creating a suit that adds to the experience, that moves when you move. You want to look the part. You want to be Bruce Willis in Armageddon.”
It’s also going to include “diapers” for the girls and “relief tubes” for the guys, but suborbital flights will be short, Gilman says. “If you can’t hold it for 10 minutes …” His suits will sell for a cool $50,000 to $80,000, which is still a fraction of the $500,000-to-$1 million cost of NASA suits.
Although an entrepreneur like Gilman can catch the wave, it’s a billionaires’ game, attracting Branson, PayPal’s Elon Musk (whose Hawthorne-based SpaceX rocket company is growing so quickly it already employs 450) and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. As the old joke goes, “How do you make a small fortune in space? Bring a large fortune.”
IN 2004, MOJAVE BECAME the only private airport in the U.S. with a commercial space-flight license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Then Rutan’s SpaceShipOne became the first piloted nongovernmental rocket ship to fly to the edge of space.
That year, Mojave Air and Space Port seemed ideally positioned to become one of the nation’s pre-eminent private gateways to space for the 15,000 space tourists projected by 2021. But in 2006, California Senate Bill 1671, which proposed an $11 million, 30-year loan to fund hangars and a terminal, failed, and plans for a space terminal in Southern California collapsed.
One key vote against the bill was “Millions for a Billionaire?” — the critical fiscal report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office that warned, “The state would be subsidizing the construction of a building to house operations for a company whose owner [Branson] has a net worth in the billions.”
California’s loss was New Mexico’s gain, with Virgin Galactic and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson championing the building of a $200 million, taxpayer-supported spaceport in the poor, southern part of New Mexico. Construction of the grandly named Spaceport America, with its 10,000-foot runway and futuristic terminal, could begin next year, pending FAA approval.
Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, has said that several characteristics make New Mexico perfect, including “climate, free airspace, low population density, high altitude and stunning scenery.”
Without a space passenger terminal, Mojave Airport manager Stuart Witt, a former Navy pilot and Cal State Northridge graduate, has begun to work on repositioning Mojave as the Silicon Valley of the private space age, in hopes of providing much of the hardware and the creative solutions the industry will need.
A surge in high-tech jobs could follow if Virgin builds its proposed 12 mother ships there. Tourists have already flown in space, beginning with oddball billionaire Dennis Tito in 2001. But the $20 million-to-$40 million cost and the months of required training in the Russian cosmonaut program prompted entrepreneurs to create much more accessible “suborbital” flights for the masses — those who have $200,000. Going even cheaper, Virgin Galactic’s competitor, XCOR, plans to offer a $100,000 trip.
XCOR’s ship, today just a wooden mockup named Lynx, would have passengers in the co-pilot seat, next to former Shuttle pilot Rick Searfoss, flying to an altitude of 200,000 feet. XCOR CEO Greason says the Lynx will hit speeds between Mach 3 and Mach 4. “You take off and accelerate very quickly. You’ll climb very steeply for three or four minutes, get shoved back into your seat at three to four G’s and coast out of the atmosphere, looking back at the Earth from altitudes very few have seen.”
But is the space-tourist business for real? Esther Dyson, principal of EDventure Holdings, a venture-capital and investment firm, says, “People want real experience, they don’t just want to sit in front of a computer and play World of Warcraft.” Dyson, who backed Internet start-ups like Flickr and is now investing in space companies like Zero G and XCOR, says of the planned Lynx flights, “It’s thrilling to be so far away and to see the vastness of things. I love flying over Greenland. It’s so vast, until recently so white. I want to experience the vastness from space.”
Even the short duration of a suborbital flight is being spun as a plus: “You’re far away, but back in a half-hour,” says Dyson. “If you tell a Wall Street guy they can go on an African safari for a hundred thousand dollars but it’ll take two weeks, these guys say no way. Going into suborbital space, including prep time, will take two days.”
Southern California’s first crack at cheap space flight comes on August 23, when, for $4,200, ticket-holders can ride Zero G’s “vomit comet,” a plane that flies stomach-churning loops to create up to 30 seconds of weightlessness.
The 5-foot-3-inch, 110-pound Dyson has flown weightless four times with Zero G’s simulated taste of space. “The amazing thing is that it doesn’t feel amazing, it feels natural,” she says. “The most frustrating thing about being weightless is that it doesn’t last long enough.”
As an investor, Dyson gets to fly on one of XCOR’s final test flights of Lynx before that trip is open to the public, hopefully in 2010, and she can’t wait. “I’ve sat on planes with the people next to me terrified. I like being excited and thrilled — driving is more dangerous. I’m a zero-G person; I love exploring.”
But while these companies must get approval from the FAA, they still face hurdles in assuring passenger safety. Last summer, private space flight suffered its first fatalities when a rocket explosion at Mojave took the lives of three Scaled Composites technicians.
Tragedies could mean “an end to commercial human space flight before it has a chance to get started,” warns George Nield, head of the FAA unit that regulates safety in commercial human space flight, who draws a parallel to disasters on early supersonic jets, like F-104s, on which 110 German air-force pilots died.
Not to mention two Shuttle catastrophes: If the 18,000 monthly aircraft departures from LAX suffered from the same 98.4 percent arrival rate experienced by the Shuttle, a staggering 288 airliners a month would crash.
Dyson doesn’t believe possible catastrophes will kill the private space movement, saying, “It’s like climbing Mount Everest, although it’s not as physically taxing.” Despite very steep death rates among climbers of that mountain, people still want to climb it.
Behind investors like Dyson and innovators like Rutan and Gilman are the pilot superstars, like Buzz Aldrin and Rick Searfoss. At 78, Aldrin, who walked on the moon in 1969 and is among the world’s most recognizable names, is still one of the hardest-working men in the space biz.
From his home in Beverly Hills, he avidly promotes space exploration, but his wife, Lois, says he still needs the work, even at his age. Lois, who helps to set up Aldrin’s engagements through Starcraft Enterprises, says the former Gemini and Apollo astronaut never received a salary from NASA and his only other income is a modest $1,500-a-month Air Force pension.
With the private space race picking up in California, Aldrin intends to be in the middle of things. Still trim and fit, he flies with Lois to events around the world, from the Virgin Galactic launch to a stroll on the new Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass walkway 4,000 feet above the Colorado River.
Space travel is attracting a monied bunch of adults ready to pay huge sums for a ride, but Aldrin says he’s after a much younger crowd. “We’re going to use MySpace, Facebook and Second Life to inform young people about the realities of adventure in space.” He’s probably the closest living example of the billboard outside Mojave Airport. It reads, “Imagination flies here.”