MOJAVE — Stuart Witt, a former test pilot who runs the airport in this weathered desert town, was working at his desk when he heard the explosion.
"I turned and looked out the window," said Witt, 54. "There was a trace of dust in the air over by the east-side test area."
His assistant suggested it was a sonic boom, a frequent occurrence in the desert airspace near Edwards Air Force Base.
But Witt knew better. Sonic booms come in pairs. This was one loud explosion, so powerful it was heard in Palmdale, 30 miles away.
The blast, which killed three men and injured three others, occurred during a fuel-flow test in July at Scaled Composites, the famed aerospace company that is building a suborbital rocket plane for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space line.
For this desert hamlet of 3,700, located, as they say, "a full tank of gas and a full bladder north of Los Angeles," it was a space-age wake-up call.
Fifty years after the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik 1 into space, Mojave has found itself at the center of a private space race that boosters say is as important -- and risky -- as the nationalistic race between the Soviets and the United States.
This time, a group of ambitious entrepreneurs is leading the competition to launch regular Janes and Joes into space.
"Mojave is the place to be," said Jeff Greason, a co-founder of Xcor Aerospace Inc., one of the larger rocket companies that has sprouted in the desert. "This is the Silicon Valley for the new industry."
Half a dozen companies, from big-time operations like Scaled Composites to lemonade-stand-scale business with a handful of engineers working in stifling warehouses, dot the barren landscape around the Mojave Air & Space Port. Each company has its own remote testing site in the midst of the chaparral.
"The same things bring people to Mojave that brought Orville and Wilbur to Kitty Hawk," Witt said. "Freedom from encroachment, industrial espionage, the press and a steady breeze."
Dave Masten, the head of Masten Space Systems Inc., a bootstrap firm with five employees, has another explanation for the rocket boom in Mojave. The vastness of the landscape has inspired a high level of tolerance for dreamers and wayfarers.
Masten made a chunk of money in software development, then moved from the Bay Area to Mojave to join the private space race. He has spent a million dollars but has yet to launch anything more than a few feet above the surface of Earth.
He likes the camaraderie he's found in the desert. "People come by to beg a cup of lox," he joked, referring to the liquid oxygen used for rocket fuel.
Besides, testing rockets in the Bay Area would be considered antisocial.
"Here, we can do it anytime, anyplace, and nobody cares," Masten said.
Atrip to Mojave is in one sense a journey to a place out of another time. Though the dim, low-ceilinged bars that once dotted the coast have been replaced by jazz clubs, the desert northeast of Los Angeles looks as stingy and friendless as it did before the arrival of the railroads.
At the end of a long drive out Highway 14 -- beyond the boom-and-bust desert metropolises of Palmdale and Lancaster, beyond the once-secret test facilities at Edwards Air Force Base -- the desert resolves into a crouched, narrow strip of fast-food establishments and motels still boasting of private showers and a TV in every room.
Yet Mojave's isolation has made it "an optimistic place," said Bill Deaver, a town historian and the brother of Michael K. Deaver, the recently deceased deputy chief of staff to President Reagan.
Deaver, a gruff-voiced man of 71, arrived in 1948. His father, Paul, was a gasoline distributor; his mother, Marion, wrote for the Bakersfield Californian, covering experimental aircraft flights at Edwards in the 1950s and 1960s.
According to Deaver, publisher of the Mojave Desert News, the town was founded by Southern Pacific Railroad in 1876 as a stopover on the line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It became a watering hole for parched miners who flooded into the area after gold was discovered on nearby Soledad Mountain.
While some dug for gold at the Elephant-Eagle, Yellow Dog and Golden Queen mines, others dug out borax, a mineral used in detergents. The trip by 20-mule team from Death Valley to the railroad station at Mojave took 15 days and covered 160 miles.
In modern times, the airport has developed into a focal point of local industry. It was used to train military pilots during World War II and the Korean War. More recently, it's been largely known as a boneyard for decommissioned passenger jets.
What has persisted through good times and bad is the vast emptiness of the place. It's the reason the Air Force's flight test center is at Edwards, along with NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.