Mar 22, 2011 2:54 AM GMT
I find stuff like this pretty exciting. The development of the private space industry is remarkable. (Click the link to read the whole article - I've just dropped an excerpt):
Elsewhere, Roton might have been discreetly withdrawn from public view long ago. But at the Mojave, California Air and Space Port, the towering, cone-shaped rocket-helicopter hybrid is permanently displayed at the entrance to the administration building, right where the facility’s general manager, Stuart Witt, wants it. A late 1990s dsesign for single-stage-to-orbit spaceflight, Roton started with an Atmospheric Test Vehicle, which got off the ground three times, never higher than 75 feet. But Witt says it ushered in a new era of thinking: “That you didn’t have to be Boeing or Aerojet. That the small guy was free to dream big and take big risks and maybe create a breakthrough at a place called Mojave.”
Speaking with Jeff Greason, CEO of the Mojave-based spaceflight venture XCOR Aerospace, I stammer for a word more diplomatic than “failure” to describe Roton, which he worked on over a decade ago. “Just go ahead and say it,” Greason laughs.
In the 1970s, Witt’s predecessor, Dan Sabovich, envisioned Mojave as the civilian counterpart to aerospace test facilities at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. By 1982, designer Burt Rutan had turned his revolutionary kitplane business at Mojave into Scaled Composites, creator of the round-the-world Voyager and Beechcraft’s all-composite Starship. Not many years later, Witt says, Rutan began thinking outside the atmosphere.
Witt is a Top Gun grad and former Navy F-14 aviator who exudes a fighter pilot’s cool and edge, even behind a desk. As its director, he is the spaceport’s driving force and philosopher-in-residence. From his expansive office windows, with views of outstretched runways and desert mountains smoldering in the distance, Witt points up at airspace. “It’s a drawing card of epic proportions,” he tells me. “Think about what drew Wilbur and Orville to Kitty Hawk. Freedom from encroachment of the press, freedom from industrial espionage, and a steady breeze. You could easily say, ‘That’s exactly what’s at Mojave too.’ ”
Witt works, lectures, and lobbies to keep it that way. He’s a big-picture guy, but big government programs aren’t part of it. He views NASA “not as bad people” but as an agency strangled by complexity, both organizationally and with vehicles like the shuttle: “Think how many miracles had to occur to get that thing into space.” Witt maintains that routine escape from the atmosphere can come only via private-sector efforts, noting that 50 years of government-funded launches have put only about 500 people in space. “It’s kind of an embarrassment,” he says.
Mojave’s diverse and often unconventional tenants present challenges a county airport manager doesn’t encounter: From maverick Burt Rutan, working wizardry behind the big doors at Scaled Composites, to the marketers of “premium micro-gravity” and exotic propellant brewers occupying metal hangars, some without air conditioning, in the middle of a desert. Almost daily, one of them is in Witt’s office. “Sometimes it’s a pleasant discussion,” he says. “Sometimes it’s fists pounding on my desk. Sometimes it’s ‘You gotta get these regulators off my butt.’ ” Witt’s official function—and personal mission—is to facilitate the free thinking and farsighted, “then get out of their way.”