Dream of private spaceflight undeterred after deadly explosion, researchers push on

Stuart Witt, a former test pilot who runs the airport in this weathered desert town, was working at his desk when he heard the explosion.

"I turned and looked out the window," said Witt, 54. "There was a trace of dust in the air over by the east side test area."

His assistant suggested it was a sonic boom, a frequent occurrence in the desert airspace near Edwards Air Force Base.

But Witt knew better. Sonic booms come in pairs. This was one loud explosion, so powerful it was heard 30 miles away.

The blast, which killed three men and injured three others, occurred during a fuel-flow test in July at Scaled Composites, the famed aerospace company that is building a sub-orbital rocket plane for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space line.

For this desert hamlet of 3,700, located, as they say, "a full tank of gas and a full bladder north of Los Angeles," it was a space-age wake-up call.

Fifty years after the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik into space, Mojave has found itself at the center of a private space race that boosters say is as important - and risky - as the nationalistic race between the Soviets and the United States.

This time, a group of ambitious entrepreneurs is leading the competition to launch regular Janes and Joes into space.

"Mojave is the place to be," said Jeff Greason, a co-founder of Xcor Aerospace Inc., one of the larger rocket companies that has sprouted in the desert. "This is the Silicon Valley for the new industry."

A half-dozen companies, from big-time operations such as Scaled Composites to lemonade stand-scale businesses with a handful of engineers working in stifling warehouses, dot the barren landscape around the Mojave Air and Space Port.

"The same things bring people to Mojave that brought Orville and Wilbur to Kitty Hawk," Witt said. "Freedom from encroachment, industrial espionage, the press and a steady breeze."

Dave Masten, the head of Masten Space Systems Inc., a bootstrap company with five employees, has another explanation for the rocket boom in Mojave. The vastness of the landscape has inspired a high level of tolerance for dreamers and wayfarers.

Masten made a chunk of money in software development, then moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Mojave to join the private space race. So far, he's spent a million dollars but has yet to launch anything more than a few feet above the surface of Earth.

He likes the camaraderie he's found in the desert. "People come by to beg a cup of LOX," he joked, referring to the liquid oxygen used for rocket fuel.

Besides, testing rockets in the Bay Area would be considered anti-social.

"Here, we can do it any time, any place, and nobody cares," Masten said.

A trip to Mojave is in one sense a journey to a place out of another time. The desert northeast of Los Angeles looks as stingy and friendless as it did before the arrival of the railroads.

Yet Mojave's isolation has made it "an optimistic place," said Bill Deaver, a town historian and the brother of Michael Deaver, the recently deceased deputy chief of staff to President Reagan.

The first space entrepreneur in Mojave was inventor Gary Hudson, who started Rotary Rocket Inc. in the late 1990s. He wanted to build a rocket with helicopter blades that would lift the craft into the atmosphere. Rockets would then ignite, sending the craft into space.

The craft was built by Scaled Composites, which was started by pioneering aircraft designer Burt Rutan.

But the rotary rocket managed only a few test flights before Hudson ran out of money, a common problem that still haunts private rocketeers.

Rutan latched on to the rocket idea and decided to build his own. He was driven, in part, by a $10-million competition sponsored by the X Prize Foundation to create the first privately funded manned spacecraft.

In 2004, Rutan's ungainly looking SpaceShipOne and its pilot, Mike Melvill, journeyed to an altitude of 100 kilometers, winning the X Prize.

It was a milestone in spaceflight. Virgin Galactic has already started booking flights aboard a Rutan-built craft for $200,000 a trip. The company hopes to begin launching in 2009.

Today, the private space industry makes up about 10 percent of the business at the airport, Witt said.

People "have a sense of pride" over the airport's role as a birthplace of private spaceflight, Deaver said.