The U.S. Department of Transportation has approved an $8 million grant for Mojave Air and Space Port through the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Improvement Program.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, who provided early support for the grant and announced its approval in a press release Thursday, has long been a supporter of the eastern Kern County spaceport, where companies like Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Co. and Stratolaunch Systems operate research, testing and engineering facilities.
"From Stratolaunch to Virgin Orbit, Mojave Air and Space Port is leading the way in civilian aeronautics and commercial spaceflight," McCarthy stated in the release. "But in order to continue to take the next steps toward even greater innovation in the industry, it is vital that Mojave Air and Space Port’s infrastructure is revitalized."
Infrastructure. It's not as exciting as the sight of a rocketplane blasting civilian astronauts into the microgravity of suborbital space — but it is crucial nonetheless, said Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Karina Drees.
"In some cases, the pavement is failing," Drees said of Taxiway C — or as she calls it, "Taxiway Charlie" — a 7,200 foot long, 60 foot wide ribbon of pavement designed for the movement of aircraft before and after takeoff and landing.
Maintaining the spaceport's infrastructure is "very difficult," Drees said. "We spend $200,000 annually in just crack sealing to try to prolong the life of the pavement for as long as possible."
But now it's time to replace, not prolong.
"Congressman McCarthy called personally this morning to let us know we got the grant," she said.
It's not a sure thing, Drees said. On the contrary, this is the first such grant MASP has received.
Last year, McCarthy sent a letter to the FAA in support of Mojave's grant application. Apparently, it doesn't hurt to have a powerful member of Congress on your side.
Drees was named MASP's CEO and general manager in 2016, only the third general manager in the history of the former World War II-era Marine Corps air base. Now the facility, situated about 60 miles east of Bakersfield, is considered one of the top aviation airports and home to innovative flight tests and several commercial space companies. One of 12 licensed space ports in the United States, MASP plays host to more rocket engine tests than any other place in the world.
The one-time desert outpost earned its place onto the map of commercial space endeavors in the summer of 2004 when aerospace entrepreneur Burt Rutan and his Mojave-based company, Scaled Composites, became the first team to successfully send a civilian pilot to suborbital space through a privately funded effort. In September of that year, Rutan's team would go on to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Eight years later, Rutan's SpaceShipOne was on track to be replaced by the next generation vehicle, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-crewmember rocketplane also built and tested at MASP.
Last December, SS2 reached suborbital space for the first time, coming closer than ever to the advent of commercial tourism, $250,000 thrill rides to the edge of space.
Sometime over the next few months, Drees said, Virgin Orbit, another company within the Virgin Group, is on track to launch a payload to space from its base in Mojave using a rocket launched from beneath a modified Boeing 747.
Hang on tight, Kern County. Commercial spaceflight is in your back yard.