Creating a safe place for businesses to make mistakes is a tall order these days, particularly in risk-averse California and especially if human lives are at stake. But without the freedom to try and to occasionally fail, creativity and productivity suffer, says Stuart Witt, who oversees the Mojave Air and Space Port, located about 200 kilometers northeast of Los Angeles.
The center is home to SpaceShipOne creator Scaled Composites and more than a dozen other companies working to pioneer the space frontier. Fanning the flames of entrepreneurship and exploration is Witt, a former Navy fighter pilot and Top Gun graduate who flies himself to work two or three times a week. He recently spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz in his Mojave office.
What are the obstacles the spaceport and commercial space in general are facing?
Barriers to growth are not new. Barriers to change are certainly not new. And disruptive change, such as transitioning from brooms to vacuums, or from horse and buggy to automobiles, is difficult. Every time there was a disruptive change, a group was left still defending the past.
Right now, you’ve got essentially 85,000 people working for this country’s national space agency. That’s direct employees and contractors, yet we can’t put an American in space. We have to buy a ride. That happens largely because people are wedded to the past and they have lost the ability or will to remain relevant.
It has been more important for our leaders in Congress and the administrations to preserve all jobs, and so for the last 30 years NASA supported construction of the international space station, which I support — at all costs, which I don’t support. The shuttle became the primary tool for the construction of international space station and we never realized the rates of shuttle flights, or the efficiencies or the safety that were advertised.
We were wedded to preservation of 85,000 jobs and not willing to demand something for those jobs which would have required retooling of the people, retooling of the facilities and maintaining relevance for the nation. So now we find ourselves in a very odd position of explaining that to the rest of the world, and to the people paying the bills, and saying, “Trust us, follow us out of this, we’re going to return to relevance, we’re going to return to manned flight in seven years, five, years — pick a number.” Or we can be enlisting the help of the private sector to really do what the private sector does best.
What should NASA be doing?
Governments are very, very good at certain things. I believe that the informed U.S. taxpayer has a vested interest in a forward-leaning, well-funded, laser-focused national space agency, not one that’s out building batteries for this thing that never gets built in a division in Cleveland and supporting ozone-depletion research in the Antarctic. That’s not in its mission, but it means jobs. All these different divisions got more interested in jobs as opposed to doing the core mission of the national space agency.
Right now, you put a dollar on the table every year and 10 NASA centers fight over that dollar. They’re in competition with themselves because they have to pay for the light bill and all the facilities they own and they have to pay the salaries of their employees, the benefits to the retirees, the health care benefits. I think it’s time to take some of those missions that have traditionally been borne by the federal government and put them in the hands of the private sector, which is motivated in a different way. What do you want us to do? What will the market buy? What will the market be willing to pay for? That defines what you’re going to do next year.
Assuming that the self-sustaining tendency of government agencies does not change, how can we have a more effective space policy and space agency?
I’m obviously way out of touch because I’m running a business in a state that doesn’t endorse risk. Somehow they’re allowing us to continue to operate, in a society that in my lifetime has become totally risk-averse. But you look at our magazine ads, and one word jumps out at you: permission. How many people do you see advertise something as ridiculous as permission? People flock here for just that — permission to test, to dream, to develop, to try to find breakthroughs in propellants, guidance and control systems, materials, composite structures.
Today, in Western society, even though humans have been to another terrestrial body and we’ve made many trips to Mars and we’ve made deep-space probes, we’ve only put 550 people outside the hatch of spaceship Earth. I think all we’re trying to do is find a way to add a few zeros after that in very short order. How about 500,000 people in the next 50 years? Something ridiculous and bold.
Typically governments don’t have the means or the motivation until you can find a way to make money. I’m not so concerned with making money as I am about putting brains in space. As soon as we hooked 10-year-olds up to the Internet we found out how to use the Internet because they weren’t constrained about how we did things in the past.
How many companies do you have out here?
Fourteen space companies and 70-some contracts with all kinds of companies — rail, wind developers, etc. — but it’s all like-minded people. They share certain technologies.
How do you maintain an environment suitable for these types of high-risk, high-reward businesses?
The local communities have been very supportive of us. I don’t know the last time I had a noise complaint and we’ve tested more rocket motors at Mojave this century than the rest of the world combined. That’s a very supportive community. They may not know exactly what’s going on out here, but they don’t complain about it.
At the county and state level, things get a little muddier. Our governments across the states are controlled by attorneys, and the trial lawyers unions in various states are very powerful and they basically believe that everybody deserves their day in court. So anybody’s fair game to sue anybody else. It’s great if you’re the attorneys. You’re guaranteed a job. But they also write our laws and run our governments.
How has California’s business climate impacted Mojave, like XCOR Aerospace, which is relocating to Texas and Florida?
The friendlier locations deserve winning the business. They don’t have this “entitlement” state. You’re allowed to take some risks, you’re allowed to be free, you’re not a ward of the state. As XCOR Chief Executive Jeff Greason would say, the only problem with California is that it’s in California. California still produces a technical work force greater than anything else in the nation.
Are you concerned that the first time there’s an accident it will shut down these commercial space ventures?
I tip my hat to these companies because they play “Let’s bet the company” every day. How many space vehicles does Virgin Galactic have? Oh that’s right — one. You see what I’m saying?
I challenge the safety mentality. If you put “safety” and “explorer” on a scale, right now safety’s got the weight. I think we need to find balance so that it’s OK if you want to be an explorer and you want to dedicate your life to exploration for humanity and you accept the risks.
I really challenge the notion that you can’t smoke in public or you can’t drive without a seatbelt or can’t drive a motorcycle without a helmet. I’m not going to drive my car without a seatbelt. I’m not going to ride my bicycle without a helmet. I won’t ride a motorcycle. I used to, I’ve owned three and I’ve had three wrecks. I was a slow learner. My point is all those things we have legislated make sense, but we make laws. And now we raise our next generation of children within a new framework. Everything they touch requires assurance or insurance that they will maintain the rules, be safe and safeguard themselves or government will do it for you, and I challenge that. I hear people say that I sound libertarian. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I like to be able to make some decisions on my own.
Why do you think it’s important to get more “brains” in space?
I raised three sons. I would argue — and I hope it’s not true — that my generation and my sons’ generation are the last explorers because if the trajectory continues on the path it’s currently pointed, you can work or not work. You’ll have your health care. You can kind of live a humdrum life and not take risks. But for the last 6,000 years, that really doesn’t describe the human experience. When I was a kid, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan — all these people were my heroes. I wanted to be like them, I wanted to explore. I was building everything I could get my hands on. Now kids don’t build it, they just see how it could have been done.
There’s probably a new form of creativity from this, but there’s something being lost at the same time. Maybe I’m a broom-maker all of a sudden and not a vacuum salesman, but it’s hard for me to accept that humans have evolved to the point where they are no longer an exploring species.
I think we die a little bit when we stop exploring. We may die far more than a little bit. I’m not ready to become safe and locked in a room and handed my bowl of rice everyday.
So how do we change that?
I don’t know that we do, but I don’t know how to live any other way and I’m 60. I’m going to keep going full-speed ahead with the only thing I know how to do. Maybe I am the broom. I’ve come to grips with that.