YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Rocket Men

A somewhat motley crew of test pilots, dot-com dropouts, dreamers and others will change space travel as we know it. Or not.


MOJAVE, Calif. — Two hours before launch, the biggest problem seems to be with the VCR. It won't record right, or something silly like that, but that's OK. Far, far worse things could be going wrong in the hours before a tiny, home-built airplane is set to fly a mile straight up into the air using two small honest-to-God, send-a-man-to-the-moon, fire-out-the-back rockets on a Thursday morning in the middle of the desert.

An engineer, the chief engineer, in fact, the guy who designed the thing, a man named Dan DeLong, climbs into the cockpit and fiddles with the VCR, a tiny camera and a television set. He wears a red bicycle helmet.

Cold air and a high-pitched hissing surround the plane--dubbed the EZ Rocket, it's the only airplane now flying on rocket power--inside a garage-like hangar at the Mojave Airport, about 100 miles from Los Angeles and just as far from outer space. While DeLong figures out how to videotape the instrument panel during flight, two mechanics named Johnny and Mike feed liquid oxygen, cooled to -298 F, into a large tank resting in the passenger seat. The air throughout the hangar feels cold and fresh, flushed with pure oxygen. A 5-foot tube on the plane's underside has been filled with isopropyl alcohol, which is what you might use to clean a wound, and which, when mixed with liquid oxygen and a flame, can send you straight into space.

This is the stuff that makes a rocket go. This and the eclectic band of people orbiting the EZ Rocket on the morning of what's supposed to be its second full-engine launch. They're a passionate pit crew of engineers, mechanics, test pilots, dreamers and dot-com dropouts, the heart of a young company called XCOR Aerospace, which may be the future of technology start-ups, space travel and the human race as we know it.

Or quite possibly not.

If flight-operations wiz Buzz Lange, who describes his job here as pushing buttons and fixing the plumbing, is to be believed, it's one way or the other. "Everything in rockets is extreme," he says, pointing at this ordinary, tiny airplane, much of it now covered in ice. "It's extremely hot or extremely cold, and there's no middle ground."

For the four founders who've spent two years turning a kit-built Long EZ hobby plane (you can buy one for about $30,000) into a rocket-powered mission statement, this hot-cold dichotomy is a more serious problem than the buggy VCR. Rockets, space travel and aerospace in general have always been big-budget, government-style endeavors, and no privately funded civilians have ever sent somebody into space and brought them back. If XCOR is to survive, however, if founders DeLong and Loretta "Aleta" Jackson, Doug Jones and Jeff Greason are to do this, they have to make rocket science safe and predictable. In other words, mainstream and boring. An everyday thing.

Putting a scrappy rocket plane into the air is an act of such brand-name American optimism that you'd expect it to be trumpeted by talk of Big Ideas at the roll-out, scheduled for today, an aerospace custom of presenting a new flying machine to investors, the press and the world.

The fact that weathered aviation legend Dick Rutan, 63, has been hired to pilot the thing only reinforces the company's self-styled, pragmatic maverick image.

All of this takes place at an airport surrounded by hundreds of grounded commercial aircraft, United and Continental and the like, just parked on sand, some in need of repair, some waiting for their second career in another county, some simply not needed these days, with fewer and fewer people willing to take to the sky.

The national mood, however, doesn't affect those working at Mojave Airport, which has become a sort of office park for dreamers, a haven for those who want to build and zip around in untested, seemingly hare-brained aircraft. It's where the XCOR founders--and most of the half a dozen people they've hired in the past two years--met, at the now-defunct Rotary Rocket Co., which planned to send a 63-foot-tall, thumb-like, rocket-powered object into orbit, and then bring it back down using a giant propeller.

The only real reason to put rockets on an aircraft these days, explains Greason, XCOR president, is to go into space. Jet engines can't do it. Propellers can't do it. And once you're 50 miles or so in the air, or what's called suborbital space, there's business to be done: low-gravity experiments, satellite missions, military research and--here's the sexy stuff--tourism. Sending humans up to see stars that don't twinkle, any time of day, on visits much like California millionaire Dennis Tito's paid leisure trip to the International Space Station last year. "I would never have talked about tourism in public," says Greason, "until Dennis Tito flew."

Los Angeles Times Articles