If California is the nursery of the alternative space agenda, Mojave is the crib. Here—just a few miles from Edwards Air Force Base, where the remnants of Lockheed Martin’s ill-fated, billion-dollar X-33 orbital space plane sit mothballed—seven private rocket companies have set up shop. Most famous is of course Scaled Composites, whose majordomo, Burt Rutan, is widely expected to capture the $10 million X Prize for the first private vehicle to travel to space twice in two weeks. But at the lesser-known XCOR Aerospace, work proceeds apace.
The nondescript building that houses XCOR was shaken by the first-ever sonic boom—Chuck Yeager knifing overhead in 1947 aboard “Glamorous Glennis”—and it is in some sense still shaking, with the almost palpable drive of its tenants. Jeff Greason, XCOR c0-founder and president, keeps a schedule that makes his old Intel job look like a union boondoggle. Today’s 14-hour workday winds down with him crunching numbers, trying to lower the battery weight on XCOR’s space-plane-in-progress, the Xerus. He stares at the computer, foraging dinner from a Tupperware container, keeping crumbs away from the mice that regularly scurry through the office.
Randall Clague, a newish hire, pokes his head in. His eyes are at half-mast, his speech reduced to primitive monosyllables.
“Still plenty of time to work,” Greason says cheerfully.
“Can a corpse do the work?”
“If I apply electricity in the right places.”
Greason seems too old to be 37. (“I live fast,” he says.) His fugitive appearances in the high-desert sun have not so much tanned his skin as pinked it, like baby back ribs after you’ve wood-smoked them for seven hours. In a town where the relentless wind has been known to blow the yellow stripes off the road, where there’s nowhere to see a movie and not even a decent diner, there’s nothing to do but work. This is exile, really—a fact Greason and his team fully accept. There are no
That they are a team of inveterate optimists is clear from the mere fact that they are still in the civilian spacecraft industry after being scorched by perhaps its most notorious flameout. The nucleus of XCOR is the propulsion team from Rotary Rocket, the company that in the late ’90s tried to build a
rocket-powered helicopter-like craft called the Roton intended to lift payloads into orbit. The team was laid off just weeks before the test that Greason believes would have proved whether or not the concept worked. Chief funder Walt Anderson, having lost confidence in the project, pulled the plug after spending nearly $30 million out of his own pocket.
Greason, true to form, doesn’t view the Roton’s failure as a failure. Anderson’s fat wallet allowed him to “scour the entire Western world for talent” and make it worth their while to come to Mojave. And here they still are—albeit not operating in the style to which they had become accustomed. The bootstrap culture of XCOR is the antithesis of the lavish, indeed NASA-like, spending that doomed Rotary Rocket. The guys (and one woman) drive rust-embroidered cars. They scour the goldmine of eBay for parts. (“Lockheed spent more on their environmental assessment for the X-33 than we’ve spent in total,” notes chief engineer Dan DeLong.) The igniter on XCOR’s first test rocket-plane, the EZ-Rocket, is a $2 chainsaw/weed-eater spark plug. “If NASA were going to do that, it’s conceivable they’d devise their own igniter that would do what a spark plug does,” says XCOR electronics engineer Mike Massee, who wrangled some of the used gear. “We just use a spark plug.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.