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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.

November 12, 2001|GLENN GASLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At XCOR, this shiny, gee-whiz future is couched in small-business pragmatism and dot-com-influenced caution. There is a mantra, spoken all day around the little, hot-and-cold rocket plane: "Build a little, test a lot, get more funding." This is what DeLong tells me. This is what Jackson tells me. This is what company newcomer Rich Pournelle, a San Francisco e-commerce guy who moved to Mojave last year to learn the space business, says over and over again. "Everything," says DeLong , "is incremental."

They've all seen how this works. Before Rotary Rocket, DeLong, the chief engineer, worked on the Space Station for Boeing. Greason managed big ideas for microchip maker Intel and now says this new company, like any successful tech start-up, needs to take one leap at a time, each one making money, each spurring new investors, new directions.

First, in this case, build a rocket that you can turn on and off, that you can launch five times in a day. It doesn't have to go into space, it just has to be reliable, boring. This, he says, is the point of the EZ Rocket, which they won't fly any faster or higher than a regular Long EZ.

Then, in the next few years, the plan is to design and build a supersonic rocket plane, something that breaches the sound barrier and the atmosphere, goes suborbital, something no private plane has done. The U.S. government has already drafted permits for this kind of vehicle--companies like XCOR have been promising them for years--and Greason wants to be the first to apply for one.

Next? Nobody talks too much about what's next, but they'll say that any small private aerospace company wants to build a space plane, a reusable, reliable vehicle that will shuttle people and cargo into outer space, to orbiting hotels, to the moon. This is similar to what Rotary Rocket tried to build right off the pad, and that's where it went wrong, says Greason. The company burned through $35 million and never got into space, he says, which is why these survivors are building, first, a tiny rocket plane that goes only a dull 225 mph, and plan to work up from there. They've spent less than a half-million dollars so far, private investments from traditional high-tech and venture capital sources. "We're trying to get away from that starry-eyed image," he says. "The first time you hear about us, a pilot gets into it and flies it. It's a real thing."

Along the way, the company's willing to flip burgers. They've got a government contract to build clean-burning propulsion systems for satellites. They've publicly offered to build anyone who wants one a working, flying replica of the X-1, the orange, sausage-like rocket plane in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. (Got $5 million? You want one?)

Despite all this, um, everyday pragmatism, there's something deeper driving this crew, a reason why people move to the desert and stand around cold hangars all morning. Jackson talks about the passions that brought her out here. She wants to retire on the moon, she says. She and the others want to see space travel and exploration as something more important than war.

They want to see, with their own eyes, things like orbiting hotels and moon bases and humans on Mars--things that did not seem so far-fetched when men went to the moon in machines less sophisticated than a buggy VCR. She says she hasn't been this excited about working since the mid-'60s, since her days with the Gemini project, where she fitted clocks into the capsules, a job she got because she has tiny hands.

"Dammit, we're dreaming. This offers a hopeful future, if we can get out of Earth's gravity and into space permanently," she says. "The rest of the universe is out there, and it's only 100 miles away."

"The only way we're going to get there is to get there ourselves," adds Jones, suggesting that the future of space travel is, today, in tiny hands.

"But we don't talk about it too much," says Jackson, suddenly stopping herself, focusing again on the plane, the runway, today's launch, "because we're testing a 400-pound engine on a Long EZ."

The test pilot shows up and begins circling the EZ Rocket, sizing up his ride. Dick Rutan is as famous in Mojave as a man can be. He flew fighter jets in Vietnam. He's been stranded at the North Pole. He piloted the first aircraft to fly around the world nonstop, without refueling, something called the Voyager, which, like the Long EZ, was built by a company owned by his brother, Burt Rutan. He then tried, and failed, to circle the Earth in a balloon.

Now he's ready to sit in a rocket-powered plane, hit two little red switches labeled RUN1 and RUN2 and fly straight into the air until he runs out of fuel. He then plans to glide into what he calls a "dead-stick landing pattern" and coast back onto the runway. He did it a few weeks ago, the first time the EZ Rocket left the runway and went 6,200 feet in the air in 93 seconds.

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