Science

Space on Earth

A visit to a wooden hangar where the future is being born

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The sight is a wickedly thin line of shimmering and vibrant pale green. The sensation is a warm pulse. The sound is muffled to insensibility by high-grade ear protection. On my tape recorder later, however, I hear it: a sharp-edged roaring whoosh that strains my speakers to the breaking point. 

It's an honest-to-goodness rocket engine, designed to shift a spaceship floating in weightless suborbit in order to give a passenger a different viewpoint, or to position the craft for safe re-entry to Earth's atmosphere and gravity well. It's burning a proprietary, nontoxic fuel mixture.

I'm at the Mojave Spaceport—the private general aviation airfield where SpaceShipOne, the first private vehicle to zip twice between space and back, first took off in 2004. That's the same year that Mojave became certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as the nation's first private "spaceport," certified to send vehicles and people out of this world. Seven years later, more than a handful of commercial space companies operate out of this sprawling complex of runways, hangars, and airplane bits, and it's no longer the only private spaceport in America. 

I'm a guest of Michael Massee of Mojave Spaceport tenant XCOR, a 30-employee company founded in 1999 to help build an active space transport and exploration industry.

XCOR has already built two successful rocket powered airplanes, the EZ-Rocket and the X-Racer. The company's EZ-Rocket sits in one corner of the hangar, showing none of the strains one might expect of a homebuilt airplane shot around by rocket power. Massee shows me the toggles that activated the rocket, the fire suppression switch, even the fuel dump. XCOR has launched dozens of rocket plane flights and thousands of rocket engine firings without once experiencing a "hard start" (rocketeer euphemism for "explosion") or other serious harm. XCOR investor Lee Valentine, also chairman of the board for the Space Studies Institute (an exploration advocacy group), boasts to me of XCOR's rocket engines' unusual longevity and reusability.

XCOR's main goal now is building and flying the Lynx, a suborbital vehicle to take tourists, experiments, and small satellite payloads out of this world. The company is also developing a new fuel pump, which will also be used by United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that does most of the heavy private rocket-launch service these days.

The night before this XCOR visit I attended the first Los Angeles area "Space Salon," where Will Pomerantz of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's space tourism venture, spoke on "What is the single most important development in the next five years for moving the space industry forward?" Like any gathering of super-smart people with peculiar interests, the after-talk was contentious. Some of the ideas that were bandied about: Space was "magic," and that would drive people to make it work. Space had to be sold as an experience, not a dry scientific endeavor. But mostly, space desperately requires a larger world of people who believed in it.

Pomerantz, speaking to 40 people who mostly worked for the existing commercial space industries and advocacy groups, stressed the importance of increasing division of labor in this small world. At the moment, as Massee tells me the next day, companies are mostly individualistic and competitive, and try to do as much as they can in-house—though Massee also stresses that when it comes to component parts and plumbing for rocket ship engines, there's a lot more off-the-shelf stuff these days.

XCOR is one of the smaller, scrappier players in the private space race, not driven by the headline-grabbing exploits of superwealthy chieftains such as Branson and SpaceX's Elon Musk. It's all quotidian at company headquarters—working men with molds and lathes and gas canisters and racks and dummy mockups of ambitious things working cheek by jowl in a full space, testing and building. Men are crowded around the cockpit model for the Lynx, holding up metal pieces, measuring and thinking. XCOR president Jeff Greason is on the phone in the passenger seat. The area of the shop floor where the completed Lynx's body will sit within a year from now is marked off with full-size model pieces, tangible traces of the worked-for future.

All this activity is to give people experiences that were impossible less than a lifetime ago, and are still absurdly, damnably rare. As Massee says, space travel is still stuck in the days right after the Wright Brothers. But this spaceport is already bustling—I drove past a handful of other space-oriented companies such as Scaled Composites and Masten Space Systems on the way into XCOR's humble, security-gates-free World War II-era wooden  hangar. (The long-dead early private aerospace pioneer Rotary Rockets has a capsule still aloft at Mojave as well, perhaps as a warning to newcomers.)

In a back office where I talk to Massee, a small scale model of an earlier Lynx design sits on a table where schematics of its cockpit are spread out. Pieces of rocket plane landing gear lie casually on the floor in front of the video monitor where we watch clips of XCOR rocket triumphs. The FAA had been there yesterday; the agency does not legally have to approve of the Lynx as a vehicle, but it does sign off on its takeoff and flight plans to ensure they don't endanger the public.

The private space industry is not yet normalized in the sense of being just another job that people gravitate toward. All 30 or so XCOR folk are, Greason and Massee tell me, space enthusiasts—though Greason denies what I detected was an accepted truism at the Space Salon: that the space community must convert more outsiders, especially young people, into space enthusiasts. Make it a profitable business, Greason says, and that enthusiasm will follow.

Still, Greason opens a window into his dreamier side. "Imagine going back to the age of sail, and tell[ing] them we now have…two other planets we can go to," he says. "It takes days of sailing to get to one of them; the other takes many months of sailing to get to—do you think that might be worth something? They would look at you as if you lost your mind. They are just there waiting for us, and don't even have hostile natives!"

In the small desert town of Mojave, people are dreaming and crafting and molding and machining and burning gases to make the glories of those past ages of exploration seem quaint. But whether through profit opportunities or that sheer magic of space, more people have to be willing to join the quest.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at reason.

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86 responses to “Space on Earth

  1. Good article, space will definitely have a good future. If more people see it as a place where profits, entertainment and leisure can be had, not only for nationalist chest thumping.

    1. Thus agricultural city-Statism (civilization) progresses into the ravenous invaders defeated by Will Smith in Independence Day ID4.

      Which wasn’t really about aliens from space, it was about Justice served to Dominator Culture, as depicted also in Avatar.

      1. Or it could be a means where all the primitivists can get their own planet and freely roam and hunt the whole day.

        1. And you’re murdering it.

          1. Feck off, enviro-weirdo. Space! Drink! Girls!

            1. No way would Father Jack be able to say “enviro-weirdo”. Too many vowels.

      2. Haven’t you received enough shit about posting on the internets at work?

        Damn, guess I’ll have to send you more catalogs.

      3. Yes, but if we listened to you we’d have all been wiped out by that big asteroid in Armageddon… oh, wait, those are all movies.

        Seriously, any problem faced by society can eventually be overcome, minimized, or worked around by progress. Primitivism is doomed; it can’t overcome the simple problem of co-existing with an agricultural society.

  2. MLK’s “I have a dream speech” is copyrighted, and that copyright is controlled by Sony Music.

    http://motherboard.vice.com/20…..isn-t-free

    1. It really does seem wrong that you can’t watch that speech on Youtube (this comment copyrighted by SME).

  3. Methinks that this is the most likely trends. Mr. Roddenberry, your vision of space is likely incorrect, I think that future of space is going to be much more like Firefly than that of TNG (or even TOS).

    1. That’s good. I was dreading the spandex jumpsuits.

      1. Life without pockets would suck.

    2. I hope so, we only got to seen the lives of military officials and top political leaders. I’d imagine the life of an average citizen would be boring as hell.

      1. I hope so, we only got to seen the lives of military officials and top political leaders. I’d imagine the life of an average citizen would be boring as hell.

        Clearly, you don’t read enough good sci-fi.

        1. He’s referring to Starfleet. I mean Riker was a bad boy. Seriously? C’mon now.

    3. I always felt that Babylon 5 was the most likely future. Babylon 5 also included the theme of a Mars movement trying to escape the grip of Earth domination, this is used in a lot of science fiction writings, one almost feels this is destined to happen for real one day in the future.

      1. I predict this is a more accurate representation of our space future:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…..re=related

        1. That’s a great metaphor for how agricultural city-Statism (civilization) works.

          And how effective libertarianism is against the machine.

      2. I think it’ll be more like Donaldson’s Gap series (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gap_Cycle ) where a gigantic corporation serves as both government, law enforcement, and market, but maybe without the Amnion.

    4. Uh-oh. I’m gonna hafta work on my ain’ts and shinys. And where’s my Rosetta Stone Mandarin set?

    5. Planet of the Apes is probably more realistic. Except in reality Charleton Heston wouldn’t have ever been shot into space in the first place. Sorry to piss on everyone’s parade.

  4. designed to shift a spaceship floating in weightless suborbit in order to give a passenger a different viewpoint, or to position the craft for safe re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere and gravity well.

    Was Ronald Bailey too busy to proofread?

    1. What’s the problem here?

      1. It’s early, but I’ve read it three times and can’t see it either.

        Is re-entry not supposed to be hyphenated?

        1. I think either way is proper.

        2. “Reentry” really shouldn’t be hyphenated, according to Merriam-Webster.

          As for “gravity well,” Suki is just being pedantic as it is not a proper scientific term. If I remember correctly, gravitational attraction has an infinite range. (Physicists, please correct me if I’m wrong). For all intents and purposes though, one would have to travel pretty far, much further than Lunar orbit, to say they’re “free” from Earth’s gravity.

          1. Re?ntry should have a diaresis mark.

            1. you mean umlaut

          2. Gravitational force is proportional to the product of the masses of the 2 objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. F=G(M*m/r^2), so the gravitional force drops off significantly the further apart the objects are.

            “Shere of Inluence” (SOI) is iirc the more scientific term for “gravity well”, although many people use the terms interchangeably. The SOI of the earth is basically the distance at which the gravitational attraction of the earth is the dominant grav. force acting on a spacecraft (or other object). FWIW

            1. Gravitational force is proportional to the product of the masses of the 2 objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. F=G(M*m/r^2)

              Approximately.

      2. They never leave the gravity of earth at all.

        1. Oh come on, that’s your quibble? Yes, technically we are in the gravity well of the Andromeda Galaxy.

          1. They are sub-orbital earth, well within the well.

            1. Technically the lynx won’t require “reentry” or “re-entry” or however it’s supposed to be spelled either. At suborbital altitude/ speed it will barely require a heat shield.

          2. Yeah but they arent going to experience orbital decay in relation to the Andromeda galaxy whereas they will with regards to Earth.

  5. Eh…I’ll be long dead before any of this gets anywhere worth a fuck.

    1. Unless you’re going to die in next few years, I imagine the sex industry will be taking a shot at the the zero-g environment for film production. Thereby, technically meeting your terms for being worth a fuck.

      1. Porn will be in space, there is no doubt. But the potential for zero gravity will surely provide many benefits for a whole range of things.

      2. Judging by the potential for being drafted to kill Muslims, being blown up by a drone for frequenting Reason.com, dieing of cancer from airport screenings, and my propensity for being an ill-tempered rage-filled bastard, I’d say a few years is optimistic.

      3. Cleanup will be a bitch. Bodily fluids in microgravity will cause a disaster someday, shorting out circuits or plugging filters or something.

        It’s on!

        It’s off!

        It’s on!

        It’s off!

        It’s on!

        That’s blinking, boys!

        1. In a NASA space station-like interior, that would be a huge issue, but a Bigelow Aerospace module could have larger rooms, not all of which would need to be covered with instrumentation and junk.

      4. They don’t even really need to go into space for zero-g porn. Two words: vomit comet.

        1. the fluffers get to recharge after 90s!

    2. Eh…I’ll be long dead before any of this gets anywhere worth a fuck.

      Then get yourself froze.

  6. “You will never find a more retched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious”

  7. “You will never find a more retched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious”

    This needs to be on the H&R masthead.

    1. It is the natural endpoint of free minds and free markets.

    2. Oh comeon, Mojave isn’t *that* bad. Sure there’s a lot of subsidized low-income housing (“section 8”) in town. And more than its fair share of tweakers. But most of the people on the actual spaceport are pretty nice. 🙂

      ~Jon

      1. The Jon Goff reads Reason?

        Hrm- I usually see your posts over at forum.nasaspaceflight.com

        Welcome!

      2. it takes a real space pioneer to appreciate the charms of Mojave

      3. Oh man, it is a regular NewSpace meetup in this subthread.

        Mojave abounds with the most wretched of villains, the Carbohydrate.

  8. “You know, your coat is kinda a brownish color…”

  9. We’ll get to take high-speed rail to and from the spaceports, too!

  10. I was recently speculating on this, actually. IMO, the only currently viable technology to lift the amounts of mass needed at a reasonable cost to make space commercially viable is a nuclear pulse rocket (and even that’s hypothetical), and that’s about as politically viable as libertopia.

    1. This is excluding LEO space-tourism (including space porn) of course.

    2. Remember, radiation is good for you!

      1. I do think (at this point in the human race’s technological history) that nuclear technology is VERY dangerous and what happened at Fukushima is a good example of this. In some far flung future? Who knows? Fire is very dangerous if you do not know how to control it – it can burn you, it can start forest fires, it can burn down homes! But the human race learned how to control fire and we are better off for it. It is possible that the human race will one day better learn how to control nuclear technology as well – for the foreseeable future however, I agree with those who say that we should think twice before building a new nuclear power plant. There is nothing wrong with coal that scrubbers cannot take care of. Oil is a good energy source if we permit ourselves to drill (ON LAND!!) for resources that we know2 we have.

        1. Yes, look at all those people who died from radiation poisoning. So far, uhm, well, none.

          1. The long term effects are still as yet unknown but many people left and went on “extended vacations”. Fortunately people did do a fairly good job of cleanup.

            1. Yes, some people certainly had their lives shortened, but this ought to be put in the perspective of the 15 000 people killed by the tsunami, or all the lives that are shortened by exposure to fossil fuels and their byproducts.

              A nuclear pulse rocket could be launched from a remote place in the pacific, it would add very slightly to atmospheric background radiation, but then so does burning FFs.

            2. It’s a moot point anyway, it’ll never happen short of some sort of catastrophic emergency evacuation of the Earth.

          2. Study Connects U.S. Deaths to Fukushima, Contradicts EPA Reports
            By Adam Daley
            http://www.medicaldaily.com/news/2011…..hquake.htm

        2. There are more house fires, forest fires and other accidental fires than nuclear accidents by orders of magnitude. I think we control nuclear energy a good bit better than we control fire.

          1. ? 14,000 US deaths from Fukushima (less that 1 year, see above)
            ? 3,652 US deaths from Fire (2008*)

            KOCHsucker libertards can defend anything that makes profits for their hierarchical elite masters.

            Even sadistically whipping slaves.**

            _____________________
            * US Fire Administration
            Fire Statistics
            http://www.usfa.fema.gov/statistics/

            ** Voluntary Slave Contracts
            by Walter Block
            http://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block134.html

            1. KOCHsucker libertards can defend anything that makes profits for their hierarchical elite masters.

              Even sadistically whipping slaves.**

              It’s obvious that you were sick the day your teacher taught the class what the word “voluntary” means. I suggest you study it before you deign to infest us with your ignorance again, Godesky.

          2. “There are more house fires, forest fires and other accidental fires than nuclear accidents by orders of magnitude.”

            True, but there are also far more people who USE fire than who use nuclear technology. You can go down to the local convenience store and purchase matches. Try going to the local convenience store and buying plutonium rods.

    3. I am putting my head on the block, but I believe a space elevator will be working within 50 years, which will a big boost in moving big loads into space.

      1. And moving big loads into space.

      2. Unless there’s some massive advances in nanotechnology I just don’t see it happening any time in this century, just from a technical standpoint. Then there would be the massive capital outlay…

        1. John Frum, John Galt; the “hero” doesn’t matter.

      3. It’s a possibility, but some pretty serious hurdles need to be cleared before it happens.

      4. Keep dreaming. Space elevator’s never going to happen.

  11. Is anybody else having trouble posting comments? I was trying to comment on the debate post, and kept getting an error message saying something like “You tried to access the address https://reason.com/comments/post, which is currently unavailable.”

    H&R has memory hogging and other problems. Any chance any of these will ever get fixed?

    1. Any chance any of these will ever get fixed?

      Not in an Obama administration.

  12. Anybody home?

    I mean, besides the squirrels?

  13. I hope so, we only got to seen the lives of military officials and top political leaders. I’d imagine the life of an average citizen would be boring as hell.
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  14. Brian,

    Good article. I’m glad that my previous space startup Masten Space Systems got a shout-out. I spent four years out there at the Mojave Spaceport, and it’s definitely a one-of-a-kind place. With how many libertarians, anarchists, and H&R readers there are out there, it’s good to see them getting more attention.

    ~Jon

  15. Sounds like a pretty cool place to hang out. Wow.

    http://www.anon-vpn.tk

  16. Careful everyone. We’re flirting with gambol lock.

  17. The X-Racer looks suspiciously like a Long EZ!

    Charlie

  18. business before invention because Jobs was not, for the most part, a technically proficient man.

  19. the first private vehicle to zip twice between space and back

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