MOJAVE, Calif.—The Mojave Desert is where the Right Stuff was born. It's where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier with the X-1 rocket plane in 1947. It's where other test pilots earned their astronaut wings in the X-15 during the '60s.
Now the Right Stuff is being born again in Mojave. But it's an open question whether that renewed spirit of rocket-powered flight will grow up here—or take root someplace else, as it did in the 1960s.
This time, the rockets being tested in the desert aren't secret military projects. They're commercial ventures, focused on bringing the thrill of outer space to the masses and turning a profit.
"As a child, I read about some of the things that happened… the early X-1 flights, the whole X-series…I guess I thought that was over and gone with, and probably wouldn't be seen again," said David Mackay, a 56-year-old veteran aviator who's now the chief pilot for one of those ventures, Virgin Galactic. "And yet, here we are with a very similar system, an air-launched spaceship."
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.
(Read more: SpaceShipTwo makes 2nd supersonic test flight)
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
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."
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.