A lot of people observed the development of SpaceShipTwo and other experimental aircraft through the wide picture windows of The Voyager, a no-frills diner at the edge of the port's runway.
Stuart Witt, the facility’s CEO, stops by a table to chat with a member of the local Chamber of Commerce.
Witt hasn't talked much to reporters since the SpaceShipTwo crash. The weekend of the accident, he faced a phalanx of international media.
“The test community is very small. And we are human and it hurts," Witt told reporters.
After lunch, Witt settles into an armchair in his office beneath the spaceport's control tower, surrounded by memorabilia from a lifetime in aviation. He's wary of talking at first.
A veteran pilot himself, Witt says the crash rocked the spaceport’s tight-knit community of fliers, engineers and entrepreneurs.
“When one of the companies has a good day, everybody comes out and celebrates with high-fives. Somebody has a bad day, everyone stands up and acknowledges it," says Witt. "We’re in this together, that’s why permission is important.”
Permission is the one-word slogan Witt used to draw private space companies to this one-time Marine base and general aviation airport tucked way in the high desert 100 miles north of Los Angeles.
The port is the first facility in the United States ever approved to conduct horizontal launches of reusable spacecrafts like SpaceShipTwo. Randa Milliron was among the first commercial space entrepreneurs to sign on.
“We built our first test site here in 1996,” says Milliron.
She and her husband run Interorbital Systems. It manufactures, among other things, small rocket-launched satellites for private, military and government use.
“We needed a remote area with some facilities and an attitude of, ‘Do what you want, as long as it’s safe.’ Here we can work 24 hours a day. Nobody cares if you’re up in the middle of the night testing things,” says Milliron. “So it’s a freedom to try anything.”
"Anything" includes much more than those small, softball-size satellites.
“This is a reach out into the solar system for human flight," Milliron says, adding the company hopes to participate in future lunar missions.
On a recent afternoon in the company’s rambling warehouse space, three Interorbital technicians tinker on the body of an ocean-launched rocket used to deliver satellites into space.
The company employs a full-time staff of around six people, most in their mid-to-late 20s.
“They are people who’ve usually worked in the standard aerospace industry, and they are tired of designing a bolt for their entire lives,” says Milliron. “They want to do something that’s more exciting, and they want to have hands-on experience with launch vehicles.”
After being laid off from a NASA job in Alabama, Nathan Chew moved to California to take a job with XCOR Aerospace, another up-and-coming Mojave firm.
Chew also helps run the Mojave Makers Space, a kind of after-hours lab for spaceport engineers who want to burn off a little creative steam and tinker on their own projects.
“Government aerospace is starting to give way to what commercial space is,” Chew says. “So that’s why I put in my chips and said, 'Let's see where these guys are going, and if we can make a sustainable and viable business case out of aerospace.' ”
Chew’s partner at Mojave Makers is Brandon Larson. He’s worked for a couple of space tech companies in Mojave.
Right now he’s tutoring science and engineering classes at the local high school and trying to scratch up investment cash for a research project involving cement that can be used on the surface of Mars.
Larson says the SpaceShipTwo crash is a sobering reminder of the risks involved in doing this kind of work.
“When they’re test-flying new aircraft, crashes occur and test pilots unfortunately die -- it's part of the business,” says Larson. “But we learn what we can from it and move it. It’s a dangerous business, but the people involved know the risks.”
Many residents of Mojave say they feel a kinship with the innovators working at the spaceport -- a connection made stronger by the SpaceShipTwo crash.
“It made us all realize that it’s not the people that work on the spaceport and the people that work in the community -- it's the same people," says Suzi Clipperton, a longtime guidance counselor with the Mojave Unified School District. "I think everybody realized how close we are.”
Clipperton and her husband, Doug, also help run Revitalize Mojave, a group of residents and businesses trying to help the unincorporated community deal with a host of challenges. For instance, the need to house the area's rapidly growing workforce of young, well-paid aerospace workers. Most of that workforce now lives in bigger towns, such as Lancaster, which is 30 miles away.
“If somebody built the houses, they would sell," Doug Clipperton says. "And of course that would bring in the businesses. If people could come home to a house in Mojave, rather than commuting someplace, it would pick up.”
But Mojave has other issues to overcome. Its unemployment rate hovers at around 12 percent. And about 40 percent of households have a median annual income of $20,000 or less. But engineer Larson, who chose to live in Mojave, says change is coming.
“You might have seen, if you drive around town, there’s some boarded-up buildings, empty lots. I helped clean up some of these properties. One thing we need is a little bit of investment in this town.”
When a potential aerospace investor asked Witt where he should put his money, he suggested something more down to earth.
“I suggested he buy the town of Mojave, level it and build condos because the new generation wants to work where they live,” says Witt with a sly smile.
“And so what I presented to him was: build Tomorrowland in Mojave.”
In other words, to bring Mojave into the future with the kind of bold leaps of faith that are already taking the town’s space workers closer and closer to the stars.