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.