Yes, yes, I’ll start packing for Tanzania tomorrow, I promise! No more random road trips before the Africa thing. But when a friend asks, out of the blue, whether you can give them a ride down to Mojave to visit a company building spaceships? How are you supposed to say no to something like that?
I’d first run across XCOR in the summer of 2001, at the big aviation fly-in at Oshkosh. Tucked in behind the flea market were lines of tents with the usual assortment of vendors: spray-on cleaning fluids, improved aircraft tie-down straps, industrial BBQ grills and…three guys test firing a home-brew rocket engine mounted to a tea trolley. One of these things was not at all like the other. I probably spent the next hour or so geeking out with them, asking all manner of stupid questions, which they answered enthusiastically. And their enthusiasm was contagious; if they’d offered, I probably would have quit my job then and there and moved to California to work with them (probably good thing I didn’t – the Google thing seems to have worked out well).
It turns out that the engine was not particularly home-brew; these guys were veteran rocket scientists from Mojave and were planning to strap larger versions of these engines to lightweight composite aircraft to create the world’s first homebuilt rocket planes. That was for starters, at least; the ultimate goal was obvious: space. They wanted to show the world (and regulators) that commercial space travel might just be a real thing. And true to their word, they were back at OSH the next summer, blasting around the traffic pattern with the EZ-Rocket. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I direct your attention to the skies, where you can see CRSHWHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH!!!!!!!!!!
It was awesome.
There’ve been plenty of turns along the road since (including building aircraft under contract for the Rocket Racing League), but “three guys in a tent” has steadily grown into a major industrial enterprise at Mojave International Spaceport. They’re next door to some of the more visible efforts: Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences and others, but they’ve got their niche well-protected, and are taking small and incremental steps toward a goal that’s perhaps a bit different than that of the big boys. Their funding model is different too: they’ve refined their rocket engines and structural engineering experience by taking contracts that allow them to build the technology they’d need anyway, but on someone else’s dime. In doing so, they’ve become the go-to guys for things like propellant pumps, reaction control systems and tons of other arcane stuff that you’ll have to go to Wikipedia to understand. And now they’re putting together their first actual spaceship. Headed for space. (Speaking of incrementality, CEO Jeff Greason is on record as saying that if he could figure out a way to take half a passenger to space, he’d do that first).
Anyhow. All this came up in conversation over lunch with my friend and former co-worker Eric a couple of weeks ago. Turns out he’s enamored with XCOR too, enough so to have invested in them a year or two back. And they owed him a factory tour, but he’s got small kids at home, and Mojave’s a bit far for a daytrip. Unless he could find an an easily excited friend with an airplane….
The field itself looked like a cross between several different futures, with the Roton ATV sitting on one side of the field and the skeletons of dozens of airliners on the other. XCOR’s COO Andrew Nelson met us on the ramp and guided us out of the heat into the Voyager Cafe at the base of the old control tower. It was an airport diner of sorts, with memorabilia on the walls, enormous burgers and the usual assortment of guys and gals in baseball caps arguing the merits of one thing or another.
But…these weren’t random airport bums. I kept catching snatches of conversations over my shoulder – terms like “hypergolic” and “downrange” – terms that don’t come up in normal table talk among Cessna drivers and J-3 pilots. That’s when it sank in: I was sitting here having lunch at America’s first commercial spaceport, surrounded by rocket scientists. Somewhere inside of me, the soul of that 12 year old boy cried out from the pile of broken and patched Estes rockets he’d spent his hard-earned allowance on: do I really have to wait 39 years to experience this moment?!? Patience, little one. The future is here, and you will have lived to have lunch with it.
But of course, the real treat was still to come. Andrew walked us through the shop and introduced us to the team: Anita, who was calibrating some sort of (oxygen?) pump; Jeremy, who was modifying one of their test firing rigs. Jeff and Terri and a dozen other people whose names escape me doing all sorts of rocket-building stuff, taking time out from their work to explain why this particular valve was necessary, and why that panel was shaped the way it was. Turns out that “otherwise, things explode” was often a good high-level summary.
I didn’t want to take up too much of these peoples’ time; I mean, THEY’RE BUILDING SPACESHIPS and I don’t want to be instrumental in delaying the future. But then again, they’re building freakin’ spaceships; how could I not want to talk with them?
Got to spend time swapping flying stories with their chief test pilot, former shuttle commander Richard Searfoss. Let me say that again, because I love being able to write that sentence: I got to spend time swapping flying stories with a space shuttle commander and chief test pilot for a company that makes rocket ships (Jay: He says “hi”, and wants me to ask you about that time in the T-38 with the fire test annunciators)
But eventually it was time to go. Needed to let these guys get back to building space ships. Needed to get back to Palo Alto. Needed to start packing for that next road trip, which is coming up way, way too soon.