I’ve been on the road with my wife Wendy and baby Amelie since last week, first hitting Nashville for the Women in Aviation conference, with a detour to Madison, Alabama for a visit with Orion Propulsion. Now we’re settled into Southern California, within striking distance of Mojave. We’ll be here through the International Space Development Conference in L.A. in May.

Brian Binnie, one of the test pilots for Scaled Composites who won the X Prize in 2004, gave an entertaining talk at the conference about the fun aspects of space travel. His was a wonderful counterpoint to more staid talks by shuttle astronauts Eileen Collins and Hoot Gibson, with whom he was paired.

Someone recently sent Binnie a video of a dance party that popped up in Mojave the night of Binnie’s X Prize winning flight, complete with laser light show. Binnie played that intercut with video from his flight along with some suitably psychotronic music (“Voyages by Chandelier” by Casino Mansion). When SpaceShipOne’s engine (“howling like a possessed cat,” said Binnie) cut off and the spaceship sailed into the “mystery and menace” of space, as he put it, the music went silent too. It was an inspired presentation and it got a lot of applause from the hundreds of people in the audience.

Over lunch afterwards, Binnie told me and Wendy that SpaceShipTwo is under construction and that the simulator is up and running. He’s pleased with the way the new ship handles in the simulator. Design improvements over SpaceShipOne (differently shaped wings, for instance) and the ship’s greater weight will make for a smoother piloting experience, he said.

The new design won’t be unveiled to press or the public until the new carrier plane is also built. Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn, who had to miss the conference due to an ear infection, told me by email just now that nothing will be shown until late 2007, just before flight testing begins.

Orion Propulsion chief Tim Pickens showed me around his fabrication and development plant just a couple of hours’ drive from Nashville, and took me to lunch at the Italian fast food joint where he first sketched out SpaceShipOne’s propulsion system on a napkin for Burt Rutan. Soon after that meeting with Rutan, Pickens went to work at Scaled Composites as head of propulsion for SpaceShipOne. Back at the office, he showed me his working papers from Scaled to prove it.

Orion has no investors, and is completely self-sustaining. It got off the ground with a contract from AirLaunch LLC to build rocket engine test stands (ongoing), and now also runs engine tests and builds engines and test stands for a multitude of other companies.

Pickens and Orion chief technical officer John Bossard showed me a proposal for a propulsion system in progress and then treated me to a test firing of an engine built for it. The company constructed the engine to send along with the proposal to one of their potential customers.

I’ve been sworn to secrecy on what the system is for or who might buy it, but I can tell you it was worth the price of admission alone. These guys aren’t just talking about cool stuff, they’re actually building it, and at a profit too.

Instead of trying to build full-up spaceships like other entreprenurial space companies, they’re building the systems that make those other companies go. Selling shovels to the miners, as Pickens puts it, and staying out of the inevitable polics and in-fighting that arises between government, contractors, and private companies. Very smart.