What happens when the space industry collides with a tiny town?
Science takes off.
Dustin Riggs sits in a pliant leather chair in the Mojave Air and Space Port’s pilots’ lounge. The crew chief at Engineered Propulsion Systems, Inc., is sipping a cup of coffee saturated with honey, “because sugar is bad for you.”
“I came out here to be part of space,” he says, leaning back in the seat, as if he’s ready for takeoff. “Let’s go to space.”
This SpacePort permanently employs around 2,000 people like Riggs, people who want to run their fingers along the bleeding edge of the private aerospace industry. They work for 70 companies, up from just 14 in 2002, ranging from celebrity-gossip-level operations like Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, to scrappier startups hoping to “disrupt” the industry, to record-setting aero-innovators making ultraefficient planes. It’s where Scaled Composites developed the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne, where SpaceShipTwo broke into pieces, and where Burt Rutan built the first plane to fly nonstop around the world.
Outside Riggs’s window, the tarmac soaks up the sun. A man walks by wearing a hoodie that says, “OCCUPY MARS.” Then a jet rolls past—the sleek kind of jet private passengers aren’t allowed to occupy. Beyond the runways, the long plain on which they’re built butts up to the Tehachapi Mountains. This is the high desert—3,000 feet of elevation at the base and 8,000 feet at the top—so you could convince yourself that guy actually was occupying Mars. Except that if California weren’t in a years-long drought, snow would still cap those peaks.
Riggs moved to Mojave five years ago to work at Scaled Composites, after leaving a glass-making gig in Missouri. It was a big step, a giant leap—and one that people have been making for generations: Westward, to the next frontier. “I’m out of here,” he says, imitating himself quitting his old job. “Space is where the future is.”
And in fact, sound-bite minded people like the SpacePort’s CEO, Stuart Witt, often say of Mojave, “You can see the future from here.” But it’s the present that catches the eye first. Just across a chain-link fence from the world’s most advanced flying machines, some funded by billionaires and meant for billionaire space tourists, lies the actual town of Mojave: pop 3,835.
Here, 33 percent of residents live in poverty; unemployment sits at 13 percent; and more than 80 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. A house seems as likely to have plywood slapped over the windows as not. Living in Mojave, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, costs less than most places in California, where housing sucks checking accounts dry. But people who work at the SpacePort often don’t need (or want) that cheap housing. Ninety-seven percent of them opt to live in neighboring Lancaster or Tehachapi, favoring 30-mile commutes over dilapidated infrastructure.
Riggs, though, prides himself on being a member of the three percent that occupy Mojave itself. “You’ll drive down the road, and it’s literally super poverty and then spaceships,” he says, playing with the yellow sunglasses strap hanging around his neck.
But Mojave’s residents are mobilizing. Concerned citizens, whether affiliated with the aerospace industry or not, are finding ways for the Spaceport to benefit Mojave, and ways for Mojave to benefit the Spaceport.
A Community Divided
Along downtown Mojave’s eastern boundary, long, low hangars hide the kinds of aerospace gadgets we’ve all dreamed of since childhood: the world’s biggest airplane (the Roc) and spaceships, like the Lynx, that will take people richer than us past the atmosphere. Things take off, things land, things go boom (sonically or otherwise), and the preserved carcass of the Roton rocket looms over the campus.
Highway 14 forms downtown’s western boundary. Across its four-lane swath, cargo trains come and go against the desert landscape, begging you to Instagram them. Just beyond, hundreds of windmills churn the air. Speak to anyone at the Spaceport, and they’ll tell you how fast the wind has to blow for those blades to go supersonic.
Downtown Mojave has become the focus of recent renovation efforts, says Susan Clipperton, the Student Services and Career Technical Education Coordinator at the school and head of an organization called Revitalize Mojave. To display the program’s efforts, she volunteers to drive some visitors around town for a tour. Each time the car reaches a successful revitalization landmark, she pulls over at the last minute, as if each one is still a surprise to her too: new curbs and gutters (15 years in the making); a well-manicured church that used to have tumbledown bricks; the freshly painted Elks lodge (the only large-scale gathering place); an apartment building with windows that function as windows instead of jagged holes.
The revitalizers have big plans for the future: vacant lots Cinderella-ed into pocket parks, new sidewalks (time has jackhammered many of them to pieces), cafes with Wi-Fi, cohesive signage, public garbage cans. As Clipperton turns the car around at the baseball fields shared by the SpacePort and the high school, you can see the town as she pictures it, as if her eyes are projecting Future Mojave onto today’s dilapidated landscape.
When Clipperton moved to Mojave 30 years ago, she hated it. “When we arrived at our house for the first time, I sat down on the floor and cried,” she says. “It’s this desolate, awful-looking place. And then you meet the people and get to know them.” Now, she hopes to make it as beautiful outside as she perceives it to be inside. She and her husband, Doug Clipperton, president of the Chamber of Commerce, recently bought a slummed-out second house, fixed it up, and now rent it to two local teachers.
Joyce Nash, president of an organization called We Are Mojave, says a lot of residents become proactive, like Clipperton. “Mojave is a place where people are working to make the positive changes they want to see,” she says. Nash came to the desert from Atlanta a little over a year ago when her husband got a job at Scaled Composites. “We love this community,” she says. “It’s so warm and welcoming. Unfortunately, a lot of people view this town as too small, too poor, too dirty to be of any regard. I don’t see that. It’s got character.”
While her husband was spending his days behind the chain-link fence, Nash became a full-time volunteer and organizer. She now runs a community garden at the SpacePort’s Legacy Park, and We Are Mojave hosts events like Valentine’s Day dances, movie nights, and hackathons like the International Space Apps Challenge.
We Are Mojave works closely with another organization (for a small town, there are a lot of organizations) called the Mojave Foundation, founded by the SpacePort’s General Manager, Karina Drees. Part of Drees’s job is recruiting tenants to fill the SpacePort’s hangars and workspaces. But a view of shredded garbage bags clinging to desert plants and gas stations with knocked-over pumps makes the sell more difficult. “There’s no other place in the country where you can do the kinds of things that the commercial space industry wants to do,” she says. “We can’t move this to a different location, so let’s make it more livable, more desirable.”
She’s right: Mojave is special. Its longest runway measures 12,500 feet—lengthy enough to land some of the heaviest, fastest aircraft. The sky is sunny 300 days a year (which, in addition to being good for Vitamin D, provides stable air for flying). Special-use airspace surrounds the region. Pilots can legally go supersonic (even hypersonic), rocket vertically (the airspace extends to the Moon), and buzz near the ground. “I have a friend who lost his Navy pilot license because he did a low-flying pass in San Luis Obispo,” Clipperton says. “Here, when you do a low-flying pass, everybody comes outside and yells, ‘Yeah! Do it again!’”
The Risk-Averse Need Not Apply
That town ethos—daredevil, devil-may-care—doesn’t play well with high property values, says Elliot Seguin, a former project engineer at Scaled Composites and a frequent patron of the El Jefe Baja Grill. As he says this, he works his way through a plate of nachos and an IPA. It’s dinnertime, or, for Seguin, the brief wedge of time between his real job and his other job: designing, building, and flying experimental planes. He values being able to race those feather-weight aircraft at nearly 400 miles per hour, without the control tower telling him to take it easy. “I hate the sun,” he says. “I hate the heat. But if you want to take risks with planes, this is the only place to be.”
He continues: The “crazy shit” that happens at the SpacePort can only happen because the town is low-rent, middle-of-nowhere, and off-the-radar. If you build Mojave into a nice place, people start noticing some floppy-haired kid flying his home-built plane in wild patterns. Sonic booms start messing up wine and cheese parties. “The more eyes we have, the fewer risks we can take,” Seguin says. “If you raise property values, you can’t have this here.”
There’s a lot of profanity in Seguin’s speech, including many a good-natured F-bomb, for emphasis. But then the curses get a little more serious. He is not on board with all of the revitalization efforts. They don’t just mess with Mojave’s risk-management; they’re also interventionist and paternalistic. “Don’t come in and tell people what they need to do with their yards,” he says. “They don’t need yoga.” (For the record, at the edge of his hangar, Seguin built an elevated room in which his wife, an engineering office manager at Scaled Composites, does yoga.)
The community programs Seguin can get behind are the ones in the schools. He’s seen the kids who take Mojave High’s engineering classes show up for work at the SpacePort years later. This kind of direct-line opportunity, which the school district currently strives to create, doesn’t necessarily exist in places where you can’t see the Space Studies Institute from your backyard.
An Aerospace Pipeline
Back at the school (called the “Mojave Unified School District” because all grade levels share the same campus) Susan Clipperton prepares to enter a first-grade classroom. “There are 60 kids in the science club,” she says, hand around the doorknob, “out of 400 kids at the school.” That’s 15 percent, for those of you who weren’t in the math club.
All of the upper-grade students learn science by shooting rockets, making some chemical concoction called “elephant toothpaste,” and then trekking over to the elementary section to teach the first-graders what they learned. “We feel science saves lives,” Clipperton says. She and her collaborators want the SpacePort’s scientific influence and expertise to reach the students, not stay behind the gates, and they’re hoping to show kids the jobs available if they hop over that big fence. And it starts early. When Clipperton opens the door to the first-grade classroom, all of the children leap from their desks and run to hug her. A chorus yells some vague and staggered approximation of “Missssusss Clippertonnnnnn.” She scoots them back toward their desks.
“Who wants to talk about your science projects?” she asks. All hands shoot upward. “How high did your rocket go?” She points to a student. “Two thousand feet!” the student says. “And who wants to tell me about elephant toothpaste?” Mrs. Clipperton asks. “Potassium iodide helps hydrogen peroxide become water and oxygen gas,” one student says calmly, in the manner of a doctoral dissertation.
Across the hall from these students, an older group takes part in a special engineering class, taught by Norma McClean. But don’t call it an engineering class to the kids’ faces. “When you say physics or engineering, the students say, ‘I can’t do that,'” says McClean. “I call them my Mufasa words.” She imitates the animals in The Lion King, who freak out anytime someone says their king’s name.
These students, many of whom don’t have access to computers or books outside of school, need a little bit of exposure therapy. But gradually, McClean has guided them through projects and then, afterward, explained that things like their homemade windmills—just like the windmills across the road—work because of physics and engineering. “I’m taking this group of rough diamonds and trying to make them see there’s more to life,” she says.
Although planes whiz overhead constantly and the space shuttle once landed next-door, it can all still seem an exo-world away for the students. But McClean wants to give them a path forward, hands-on experience, and as everyone in Mojave is fond of saying, “permission to fail.” To that end, the school lets McClean use their old, once-defunct woodworking building so the students can have space to build and experiment. When McClean first opened the 1950s-era building’s door, cobwebs hung everywhere, and someone had smashed all the windows. “But I saw an art museum,” she says.
She painted the bricks; an interior designer friend made aesthetic adjustments. And then McClean recruited engineer and consultant Ethan Chew to come hang out with the students and assist with their projects. Chew heads up Mojave Makers, a DIY social club that now collaborates with the school. “The kids love him because he’s high-energy and fun,” McClean says. “We have this right here in our backyard, just a chain link away. And when young, robust engineers like Chew come in with all these out-there ideas and projects, the students realize this is possible.”
The new shared maker space looks like a hip loft with a startup’s open-plan office: industrial concrete floors, outlets that dangle from the ceiling, and huge lab tables pressed together. Surplus machinery acts as decoration. The owner of the local RadioShack donates the store’s returns to the class, for spare parts and “Take-Apart Tuesday.” On the wall of this new maker space hangs a poster from the original building. McClean left it up on purpose. It shows rockets crumbling to the ground instead of launching into the sky. “It’s okay to fail,” McClean reads.
Avoiding the Exodus
The SpacePort’s CEO, Witt, certainly agrees with that mantra. He uses it to set Mojave’s spaceport apart from others and from government programs. “NASA has printed T-shirts that say ‘Failure is not an option,’” he says. “But failure is absolutely an option. I’ve learned more from things that didn’t work than things that did.” At Mojave, after a test doesn’t go as planned, everybody meets up in the Voyager restaurant, just below the control tower, and chats about it over biscuits, as other people’s airline experiments roll by. “We try things every day that don’t work,” Witt says. “But thank God we try, because we’ve found a few things that do.”
Witt’s office looks like somebody crashed a hunting lodge into a cockpit. Dark paisley chairs with cushions longer than anyone’s thighbone back up against a desk lined with astronaut bobbleheads and a coatrack of leather flight jackets. One wall is filled with certificates and photos of fast planes. A bear rug hugs the couch’s feet. Above it, a gun is hung through horseshoes holding up fox furs. It’s aviation over-stimulation, as yet another plane scars the sky with yet another contrail.
Witt sees Mojave as the Kitty Hawk of the modern era. Masten Space Systems has new instruments that use cameras to land rovers with a precision of 3 centimeters. Several companies experiment with nontoxic fuel cocktails that edge ever more efficient. Interorbital Systems develops engines that burn up so they can use themselves as fuel. Scaled Composites has composite material structures so light and strong you wouldn’t believe.
Witt tells a story about how in 1914, the first person traded money for a 23-minute airplane ride. By the time that guy died in 1960, he could fly around the world in a climate-controlled craft while eating hot meals. The listener is meant to infer that whatever we think is crazy-innovative right now will be pedestrian in a half-century. To get there, somebody has to get the party started, and keep the spirit alive. That’s Mojave.
“If we are to survive as a species, we need to figure out how to get off this rock,” he says. “If we can do anything to accelerate that from a little place like Mojave, that’s not a bad thing.”
Witt’s visionary SpacePort doesn’t have trouble attracting hot young talent to come develop engines that eat themselves. But it does have trouble retaining them. They don’t see the town as a desirable place to live, and commuting from Lancaster only feels fun until some Bay Area space startup starts poaching. Currently, SpacePort businesses only retain three employees for every five they hire. “If you have a sizzle industry, people will find you, people who want to be explorers,” says Witt. “But only a community can retain you. You have a hierarchy of needs. And if your hierarchy of needs doesn’t satisfy you, sooner or later that will overcome the sizzle work, and you will migrate somewhere else.”
Witt’s ultimate solution is different from the others’. It’s not necessarily to pour new sidewalk, meet up for movie nights, or help local businesses thrive. “I have suggested openly to some very high net-worth humans on Earth that they consider buying the town of Mojave and turning it into Tomorrowland, a utopian community that’s co-located with the space port so you could target, attract, and retain tomorrow’s workforce,” he says. “And have bike paths.”
A tech-company-like campus-city—e.g. Facebook if Facebook made spaceships, which it doesn’t (yet)—solves the risk-aversion problems that could accompany increased property values. But superimposing a company town on top of an existing one comes with uncomfortable complications, like the ethics of displacing current residents.
Visions of the Future
The future of the SpacePort remains a bit of a question mark. Last year, some of the smaller companies couldn’t make their rents. Virgin Galactic is making plans to move to New Mexico, and XCOR Aerospace recently announced they’re leaving for Midland, Texas, as its spaceport received its launch-site license in fall 2014. States other than California have regulatory barriers that easier to jump over, not to mention better tax codes. Witt maintains that the airspace and large empty area around Mojave, combined with his willingness to “give people permission,” will keep them coming to the California desert.
But what will they be coming to? A thriving utopia full of rocket scientists? A cute small town with vegan cafes? A pipeline for the best-prepped high-school engineers? Or the same ol’ Mojave? Regardless of which iteration wins out, Mojave’s success will surely affect the SpacePort’s future, even if the SpacePort’s success doesn’t always trickle down to the town.
Down the hall from Witt, in the Voyager diner, Seguin and Riggs gather with another sunglasses-wearing pilot, Justin Gillen, for a pre-flight debrief. They plan to cruise in formation, with Riggs piloting the Long-EZ Ol’ Blue that Dick Rutan once flew around the world. Riggs pours more honey into his coffee. They discuss motion sickness and whether to go cloud-surfing on the rare puffs wisping above the SpacePort.
Once Riggs has slugged his caffeine, they head out to their planes. They embody less the hard cowboyishness of the traditional “right stuff” (OldSpace) and more of an excitable, nimble curiosity (NewSpace). They hoist themselves into their planes and then taxi for takeoff. A few minutes later, their planes lift from the runway—one, two, three.
From 10,000 feet above the Aerospace Valley, they can’t see the busted-up sidewalks, the end of the chain-link, or whether the cars in the El Jefe parking lot belong to townies or Virgin Galactic executives. But they’re not looking down anyway. They’re looking forward, and up.