Rocket Men


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.”

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.

“I’m pretty much a hero pilot, so they came and asked me to fly their airplane,” he tells me, with a dead-serious demeanor. “There isn’t a better pilot around.” Rutan pulls up the sleeve of a full-body green flight suit and strokes his arm. “See this right here? This is the velvet arm. It is without equal in the universe.”

Rutan gives the plane another look. He bends down to examine the tires.

“Did you check the pressure in these?”

No, says Lange, not yet.

“Well, you need to do that.”

The rockets are tiny, silvery tubes the size of soda cans. They’re wrapped in Kevlar tubes and attached to a dense box of valves and pipes on the back of the fairly common Long EZ, which is a very cheap basis for experimental rocket craft and is now outfitted with one-of-a-kind parts and a few more from the hardware store: the spark plug from a weed whacker, the ignition switch from a moped, gauges from race cars.

The small rockets were designed from “clean paper,” as DeLong likes to say, after developing four generations of engines in two years. They have fired rocket engines 2,000 times out here in Mojave without one of them exploding. “We’ve had every kind of failure you can think of, but we design them so that they don’t fall apart,” he says. “But in big aerospace, rockets are considered dangerous until the day they ask a pilot to sit on top of it.”

While the team waits for the runway to clear, for a student at the nearby test pilot school to take off in a Swedish-built Draken jet fighter, Rutan and DeLong talk about safety, contingency plans, that sort of thing. Rutan is saying, “If there’s a fire, I bail out.”

“Can you at least,” pleads DeLong, “try to put it out first?”

A roar smothers the airport as the Draken finally takes off. A big yellow pickup tows the EZ Rocket to the runway, across a living museum of aviation baking in the sun: Half a dozen A4 fighter jets are being turned into pilot-less drones for military target practice. A giant hangar bearing the Rotary Rocket logo looms over the airfield, too big to be put to use by anything that isn’t on its way to outer space. Another roar and an F-100, the first supersonic U.S. jet fighter, lifts off over the heads of XCOR, gathered now at the end of the runway. Rutan, who flew F-100s in Vietnam, throws his fists in the air and yells, “Let’s go, baby, let’s go, baby, let’s go, baby.”

Everybody wears a hat beneath the desert sun. DeLong, as usual, is quiet, obviously thinking. Johnny and Mike keep funneling liquid oxygen into a tank in the passenger seat until the very last minute--the stuff evaporates almost as quickly as you can pump it.

Rutan tells stories about jumping out of doomed jets, until the safety huddle, when he gets serious and tells DeLong and Lange: “If you see something, tell me what’s wrong instead of telling me what to do.”

The tanks are topped off, the runway’s cleared of all hangers-on, and Rutan gets into the EZ Rocket. To test the rockets, he fires one and then the other, flipping little red switches, and the entire airport submits to a loud rushing sound. This does not, however, stop after a few seconds, when Rutan turns off the little red switches. So he pulls the emergency-stop handle, meant to cut off the engines, and the sounds continue. Something is wrong.

Alcohol keeps flowing from under the plane into the rockets at the rear, and then pools on the ground, igniting into a fountain and then a lake of fire. Rutan jumps out of the cockpit, but the others run toward the burning fuel. Mike and Johnny hit the flames with extinguishers, and fire trucks scream down the runway. Five minutes later, the trucks drive away, the moment over, the flight scrapped. The airport is as quiet as it’s been all day.

So on the morning of the EZ Rocket’s second full-engine flight, something goes wrong. Not terribly wrong, just wrong. The plane is towed back to the hangar and appears unscathed, as if just washed, and the chief engineer is only a little miffed, mostly because a reporter was there.

“You’ve seen a pretty big setback,” DeLong tells me with a shrug. He’s seen setbacks. Everyone here used to work on the thumb-like rocket that was supposed to go straight into orbit and then ran out of cash.

This crew, in the next few days, finds and fixes the problem, and the flight is rescheduled for the following Friday, when it takes off as planned, at 11:30 a.m., proving itself ready for the public roll-out. But on the day of this scrapped flight, the crew returns to work, and the crazy hot-and-cold dream will have to wait. “First,” says DeLong the rocket scientist, in a moment of everyday, middle-of-the-road, regular-guy normality, “we’re gonna get some lunch.”