Last night in Mojave I saw SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan give a talk to high school students who’d made 4.0 grade averages. Rutan told them what to expect as they came out into the workforce.
“When you get back from four or five years of college, Mojave’s going to look a whole lot different. Now, that’s really quite something to say, because if you go back five years ago, Mojave didn’t look a whole lot different.”
In fact, the place hasn’t changed much since Rutan moved there to set up shop in 1974. He said he regretted not doing more to help the town over the years. “I remember being quoted in a magazine once saying it’s a crummy little desert town, and I’ve had to face up to that quote for a long time. But have to say, I live in that crummy little desert town, and I think it’s very special.”
Now, though, real progress is on the way. Rutan said he’s identified $1 billion in private money committed to the blossoming commercial spaceflight industry around the world, and that’s just what’s been publicly pledged.
“You can also conclude that most of the folk, if they had any brains, would not announce what they’re going to do, and what commitments they’re going to do, and to tell their competition what they’re going to do. And you can guess, and you’d guess right, that roughly three or four times the amount of money that you see being committed is actually being committed.”
What’s that mean for Mojave? “I think there is a reasonable chance that Mojave will be for space flying what Silicon Valley is for the big industries of the last two decades.”
The first order of business is to attract the workforce needed to build up this new industry, and Rutan’s been having a very hard time doing that, not the least of reasons for which is the effect Mojave has on many newcomers.
“We used to keep a record of this,” explained Rutan, “and that is: if you come from out of state to work at Scaled composites, how long continuously does your wife cry after she sees Mojave? [Laughter from the audience.] The record was seven and a half weeks. I like to think that even though it hasn’t looked a lot better since I got here in ’74, that a lot of that’s going to change…. There needs to be better housing here, and there needs to be some other things to do such that people look forward to living here.”
In addition to hiring all the help he can find to build new spaceships, Rutan’s also building up Scaled’s physical plant. “We have already more than doubled our shop space just in the last eight months on Mojave airport and we’ll be building one or two new buildings over the next six to nine months.” Eventually a hotel, a space passenger terminal, and training facilities that include a centrifuge will support two to four spaceflights a day out of Mojave Spaceport.
As for the question on everyone’s mind, what SpaceShipTwo will look like, Rutan gave little away. “We are back in hiding, like we normally are. Occasionally you’ll see some promotional stuff coming out of one of the spacelines, but we in general don’t feel that’s the right thing to do. So don’t expect us to be doing any announcements or promotions or inviting the press in to look at our progress and so on. We feel it’s best to let our competition think that we’ve quit. You just get a lot more fun showing somebody stuff that they don’t expect. I will not talk about the schedule of our program, because if I get late I have to hunt up all those people and tell them why I’m late.”
He did say that SpaceShipTwo’s larger size relative to SpaceShipOne will allow passengers to float around the cabin. Instead of rocketing to space from the skies over Mojave as SS1 did, SS2 will drop from its White Knight 2 carrier plane over the Pacific Ocean. It’ll boost into space while pointed back toward land so that by the time it leaves the atmosphere it’ll be over the San Joaquin Valley north of Bakersfield, California. It’ll reenter north of the town of Tehachapi, to glide back to landing where it took off at Mojave Spaceport.
The spaceship will be able to travel 200 miles from boost to landing, and the thinking is that flying over ocean, land, mountains, desert in a single flight will give passengers the best possible views.
Taking a jab at the proposed Southwest Regional Spaceport in New Mexico, Rutan said “Some people have read the papers and think we’re all moving from Mojave to New Mexico. That’s not true at all. I have no intention of going to New Mexico; I don’t think it’d be a very good place to do a spaceflight. I believe when I get out of the atmosphere I want to see the oceans and the mountains, not just the kind of crap you can see from New Mexico.”