Mojave California Could Be The Home of (2) $100Bil. Dollar Industries, Solar Power Generation And Space Travel
Virgin Galactic Helps Make The California Desert Town Of Mojave Into The Silicon Valley Of Private Spaceflight.
SpaceShipTwo Fires Its Rocket Engine During A Jan. 10 Test Flight.
Last month, Mackay took the controls of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo for its third rocket-powered test flight over the desert. Later this year, Mackay and other test pilots expect to ride the rocket plane up to the space frontier, 62 miles up, during practice runs for passenger space tours.
Virgin Galactic, which was founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, is the current star of the show in Mojave. But Mojave is more than Virgin Galactic. More than 70 aerospace ventures are located in the town, population 4,238. It's a 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, just up the road from Palmdale (where the space shuttles were built) and Edwards Air Force Base (where the X-planes were flown).
Today, the commercial center for the new space age is the Mojave Air and Space Port, where low-profile hangars conceal high-tech gear. On the airport's grounds, you can find Orbital Sciences' Stargazer jet, which launches Pegasus rockets in midflight. You can see Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipTwo — and before that, SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight a decade ago.
Just a couple of blocks from Scaled, there's the hangar for XCOR Aerospace, which expects to begin test flights of its own Lynx rocket plane later this year. Off in the distance, you can see another hangar that covers almost twice as much area as a football field. That's where Stratolaunch Systems, a venture bankrolled by software billionaire Paul Allen, is building the world's biggest airplane to carry a new kind of air-launched rocket.
Silicon Valley Effect
Take-Off And Landing Platform.
These and other rocket companies are knit together by friendly rivalries.
"It's like a Silicon Valley effect — they share a workforce, they're fiercely competitive," said Stuart Witt, the airport's CEO. "But you have a good day or a bad day, and that same crowd will be out there congratulating you on making the attempt, on your willingness to try. Can NASA keep up with that? They'll have to."
INTERACTIVE: Take a Ride on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo
One way for NASA to keep up is by taking advantage: The space agency has already made a variety of deals with Mojave-based companies: NASA's NuSTAR X-ray satellite was launched from Orbital's Stargazer plane. Masten Space Systems is testing lander technologies for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace already have been tapped to fly NASA payloads once their rocket planes are ready.
It's virtually certain that test pilots will be earning their astronaut wings in Mojave before NASA's astronauts are launched once again from Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard different types of commercial space taxis.
The roots of Mojave's 21st-century space age go back to the beginnings of the first Space Age in the 1950s: The military favored Edwards Air Force Base as a proving ground for its experimental planes because of the area's generally clear skies and runway-friendly salt flats. Wide swaths of airspace over the Mojave Desert were set aside for military test flights — and eventually for civilian projects as well.
"It took a while to catch on, but it's such a natural fit for flight test," said Kevin Mickey, Scaled Composites' president.
One of the engineers involved in Edwards' test program during the 1960s and 1970s was a guy named Burt Rutan. He went on to design a series of build-it-yourself airplanes, and then founded Scaled Composites to take advantage of the new carbon-composite materials that were coming onto the market. Rutan was the mastermind behind Scaled Composites' Voyager airplane — which was piloted around the world in 1986 by his brother, Dick Rutan, and Jeana Yeager.
Voyager's record-breaking feat made Mojave one of the hot spots of the aviation world, but it was SpaceShipOne that cemented the town's place in aviation history. Thousands thronged to watch the rocket plane make the world's first private-sector spaceflights in 2004. Among those who marveled over the flights was Travis O'Neal, a Navy veteran who is now an engineer at Masten Space Systems.
"SpaceShipOne happened, and I said, 'That's what I want to do,'" O'Neal recalled. "That is my generation's moon landing."
Mojave became a mecca for space dreamers — including Dave Masten, a former software developer whose rocket venture won a million-dollar prize from NASA in 2009. "I think people who say they're going to change the world are thinking too small," Masten said. "We're going to change the solar system."
But First, The Rocketeers Will Have To Change Mojave.
Component Of The Next Spaceshiptwo Craft At Virgin Galactic.
The Right Stuff is only one side of the town's story: In the desert, the living is cheap, but it's not easy. "You've got this worn-out town, bumping up against the airport that's trying to breathe new life into it," said James Stokes, the proprietor of Stoken Donuts, a gathering place for young engineers as well as Mojave's old-timers.
For decades, the unemployment rate in Kern County, where Mojave is situated, has been consistently higher than California's average. Some longtime residents voice worries about rising crime and the shuttered businesses that lie beyond the airport's grounds.
"I don't know why I'm still here," said Gary Brown, a 70-year-old former surfer and movie-set grip who now does odd jobs around town. "I've never lived in a town that hasn't grown, and Mojave — it hasn't grown."
The farther you drive from the airport, the more the place reveals that it is, in fact, a desert. The desolation is one reason why rocketry took root here, and perhaps why the rocketeers are willing to work so hard. "There's less distraction in Mojave," Virgin Galactic's Mackay said half-jokingly. "What else is there to do?"
A lot of the people involved in Mojave's rocket ventures, including Mackay, actually live someplace else. Some settle in Lancaster and Palmdale, the big aerospace centers to the south. Others favor Tehachapi, a resort town nestled in the mountains to the west. There's a danger that Mojave could turn into little more than an aerospace industrial park and a wind-turbine farm.
Workforce of Tomorrow
That's a fate the city fathers are trying to avoid. Civic groups have organized a "Revitalize Mojave" campaign to give downtown businesses a boost. Witt, the airport's CEO, proudly points to an activity center that was upgraded at a cost of $1.6 million and now serves as a venue for banquets, concerts and even pickleball games.
During a guided tour of the airport, he points to a group of twentysomething engineers clustered outside Scaled Composites' hangar, playing a game of hackysack. "This is your aerospace workforce of tomorrow," Witt said. "We have to cater to that workforce. ... We're retaining two out of five, and we need to retain four out of five."
See More Photos: Mojave, An Aerospace Hotspot At The Crossroads
It will takes more than pickleball and hackysack to keep Mojave in the forefront of the new space age. Historically, the dreams born in Mojave tend to take root somewhere else. That's what happened in the '60s, when the focus shifted from Chuck Yeager and Edward Air Force Base's other test pilots to John Glenn and the rest of the Mercury 7. And that appears to be what's happening now.
* When Virgin Galactic shifts from test flights to commercial trips, SpaceShipTwo will relocate from California to New Mexico, thanks to a glittering spaceport that was built with more than $200 million in taxpayer funds.
* XCOR Aerospace is shifting many of its employees from Mojave to a new research and development complex in Midland, Texas, thanks to $10 million in economic incentives.
* Other states — including Florida, Colorado, Oklahoma and Virginia — have been wooing commercial launch operations for years. Not every courtship has been successful, but some worry that California will have a hard time keeping pace in the commercial space race.
For years, Witt has been urging state officials and lawmakers to offer more economic and regulatory incentives for commercial space ventures, to make sure that what happens in California stays in California.
"California sometimes takes the Right Stuff for granted," Witt said. "It's where many of the innovations in aerospace have taken shape, and Mojave's been at the center of that wave of innovation. But where it's moving next is up for grabs."
Want To Go Into Space? Book on China's Taobao
Towers Can Hit 1,000 Degrees Fahrenheit.
A windy stretch of the Mojave Desert once roamed by tortoises and coyotes has been transformed by hundreds of thousands of mirrors into the largest solar power plant of its type in the world, a milestone for a growing industry that is testing the balance between wilderness conservation and the pursuit of green energy across the West.
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across roughly 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, formally opens Thursday after years of regulatory and legal tangles ranging from relocating protected tortoises to assessing the impact on Mojave milkweed and other plants.
The $2.2 billion complex of three generating units, owned by NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc. and BrightSource Energy, can produce nearly 400 megawatts — enough power for 140,000 homes. It began making electricity last year.
Larger projects are on the way, but for now, Ivanpah (EYE'-ven-pah) is being described as a marker for the United States' emerging solar industry. While solar power accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation's power output, thousands of projects from large, utility-scale plants to small production sites are under construction or being planned, particularly across the sun-drenched Southwest.
The opening of Ivanpah is "a dawn of a new era in power generation in the United States," said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. "We are going to be a global leader in solar generation."
The plant's dedication comes as government continues to push for development of greener, cleaner power.
President Barack Obama has mounted a second-term drive to combat climate change, proposing first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants. His plan aims to help move the U.S. from a coal-dependent past into a future fired by wind and solar power, nuclear energy and natural gas.
According to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, the cost of building and operating a new solar thermal power plant over its lifetime is greater than generating natural gas, coal or nuclear power. It costs a conventional coal plant $100, on average, to produce a megawatt-hour of power, but that figure is $261 for solar thermal power, according to 2011 estimates. The figures do not account for incentives such as state or federal tax credits that can impact the cost.
Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the solar association, said in a statement that solar systems have seen "dramatic price declines" in the last few years.
That's good for utilities in California, which must obtain a third of their electricity from solar and other renewable sources by 2020.
The Ivanpah site, about 45 miles southwest of Las Vegas, has virtually unbroken sunshine most of the year and is near transmission lines that carry power to consumers.
Facility's Towers To Create Steam For Generating Power.
Using technology known as solar-thermal, nearly 350,000 computer-controlled mirrors roughly the size of a garage door reflect sunlight to boilers atop 459-foot towers. The sun's power is used to heat water in the boilers' tubes and make steam, which drives turbines to create electricity.
While many people are familiar with rooftop solar, or photovoltaic panels, "these are a little bit different. This takes the sun's rays and reflects them onto towers," said NRG spokesman Jeff Holland.
The plant can be a startling sight for drivers heading toward Las Vegas along busy Interstate 15. Amid miles of rock and scrub, its vast array of 7-by-10-foot mirrors creates the image of an ethereal lake shimmering atop the desert floor. In fact, it's built on a dry lakebed.
Google announced in 2011 that it would invest $168 million in the project. As part of its financing, BrightSource also lined up $1.6 billion in loans guaranteed by the U.S. Energy Department.
Ivanpah can be seen as a success story and a cautionary tale, highlighting the inevitable trade-offs between the need for cleaner power and the loss of fragile, open land. The California Energy Commission concluded that while the solar plant would impose "significant impacts on the environment ... the benefits the project would provide override those impacts."
Such disputes are likely to continue for years as more companies seek to develop solar, wind and geothermal plants on land treasured by environmentalists who also support the growth of renewable energy. At issue is what is worth preserving and at what cost, as California pushes to generate more electricity from renewable sources.
In 2012, the federal government established 17 "solar energy zones" in an attempt to direct development to land it has identified as having fewer wildlife and natural-resource obstacles. The zones comprise about 450 square miles in six states — California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
The Western Watershed Project is continuing to push a lawsuit against federal agencies that reviewed the Ivanpah project. Its California director, Michael J. Connor, said alternatives to the site were not considered and serious environmental impacts, including fragmenting the tortoise population, were ignored.
"Do we really need to have these giant plants first, or is it better to generate solar power on people's roofs, the place it's going to be used?" Connor asked.
NRG did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Resch said a key issue for the industry will be maintaining government policies that encourage development, including tax credits for solar projects that are set to expire in 2016 and government loan guarantees. "The direct result of these policies is projects like Ivanpah," he said.
According to statistics compiled by the Energy Department, the solar industry employs more than 140,000 Americans at about 6,100 companies, with employment increasing nearly 20 percent since the fall of 2012.
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