2014 in Review: Mojave’s Difficult Year

Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)
Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)

“2014 will be a fun ride. We welcome you to get onboard, strap in and hold on!”

Stu Witt

CEO & General Manager
Mojave Air and Space Port
Jan. 9, 2014

Stu Witt had a lot of reasons to be optimistic as 2014 began. The Mojave spaceport was on a roll. On Jan. 10, Scaled Composites conducted the third powered flight of SpaceShipTwo in less than 9 months. XCOR was making steady progress on the Lynx and a new hydrogen engine for ULA, Stratolaunch was busy building the world’s largest aircraft, and other tenants such as Masten and Firestar had successes over the past year.

The airport had completed a number of long desired improvements in 2013. Runway 4/22 was rebuilt and lengthened; power, water and fiber optic services were extended to the north side test area; and renovations were completed on the airport’s new event center. The entire airport now had access to high-speed Internet services.

And the end was in sight. After 12 years of transforming an old Marine Corps base into a world-class civilian test center, Witt had his eyes on retirement and the start of a post-Mojave career in the space industry.  He would leave as early as January and no later than July 2015, depending upon how long it took to find his replacement. During that time, he expected to see some great things from his tenants.

“Mojave Air & Space Port’s participation in the future continues to build on our 2013 accomplishments,” Witt said in his annual new year’s letter. “2013 was a breakout year for Mojave Air & Space Port, and I predict 2014 will see the fruits of our collective labor.”

In some ways, Witt was right.  Companies advanced on a variety of fronts. Several of them received new contracts. The enhanced test area was busy with many rocket engine firings. More jobs were created. And the new event center hosted a number of successful functions.

But the positives of 2014 were greatly overshadowed by the setbacks. The year was marked by an embarrassing financial mess, unexpected departures of key personnel, the loss of tenants, and the tragic deaths of three pilots at the end of October. What Witt had hoped would be a triumphant final year in Mojave was filled with frustrations and personal grief.

In January, the Board of Directors voted to name the new event center after Witt — over the objections of the man himself. Witt told the board he was more interested in getting things done than having buildings named after him. If board members wanted to name it after him after he left, that would be up to them. In the meantime, Witt didn’t want a memorial to himself while he was still running the airport. He wasn’t gone yet.

Stuart O. Witt Event Center (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Stuart O. Witt Event Center (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Board members ignored him. The rechristened Stuart O. Witt Event Center hosted its first big public event, the Antelope Valley Board of Trade’s 2014 Business Outlook Conference, in February with former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly as a speaker. It went well, justifying the $1.6 million renovation of a building where military pilots once took water survival training.

Meanwhile, the search for Witt’s replacement got off to a rocky start. Directors Marie Walker and Jim Balentine were appointed to a committee to oversee the process. In February, they reported they had met with a consultant experienced in recruiting executives. Walker and Balentine recommended hiring the consultant to oversee the search,with the goal of having a new general manager in place by Jan. 1, 2015.

Board President Dick Rutan and Director Allen Peterson were not pleased. They had expected Walker and Balentine to come up with a set of criteria and a framework for moving forward, not just recommend hiring the first consultant they interviewed. Rutan dissolved the committee, with the search effort reverting back to the full board.

The move did little to speed up the process. The board was still working on refining a template for succession in July when a reluctant Witt announced he would extend his term six months until January 2016.

“Exciting events are on the books for the next 18 months involving increased flight testing and launch activity from several tenants,” he said in a press release.

The search for a successor took longer than planned partly because of a series of unexpected departures. In February, Erika Westawski suddenly quit her position as chief financial officer on the eve of a delayed audit of the spaceport’s books. She gave no explanation for her sudden departure, which left Witt and others in shock.

It quickly emerged that the spaceport’s finances were a mess. Officials said no money was stolen. However, the spaceport had far less money than it thought in reserves, and many tenants appeared to be significantly behind on their rents. it would take months to sort out just how much the spaceport was owed and by whom. Then the task of collecting the money began.

It was an embarrassing situation for Witt and the board, who were forced to reassure the public that the airport was financially solvent and paying its bills. The airport hired a firm to audit four years of financial results. As 2015 began, the audit remained unfinished; the auditor now estimates the work can be completed by late August or the end of September.

Firestar Technologies was one tenant that was significantly behind in rent. It would end up moving out of two hangars on the flight line and lease one of its two test sites to Virgin Galactic. (The company had earlier leased the other site to Virgin Galactic as well.)

Fiberset, a composites manufacturer owned by Director Walker, was another tenant that was behind in the rent. In March, she resigned her position, citing the need to attend to pressing business. The board replaced her with local activist Bill Deaver.

By the end of the year, Fiberset would making its outstanding lease payments and relocated to a storefront in downtown Mojave. The Board of Directors voted to tear down the Fiberset building, which occupied prime real estate on Taxiway B.

Walker’s departure was soon followed by the resignation of long-time board member Rutan. He left to devote more time to the development and testing of a new aircraft engine. The board replaced him with local businessman David Evans.

There were other problems as well. On June 5, a mysterious fire erupted outside of a hangar used by The Spaceship Company.  The blaze broke out in rubber fuel grain being stored on wooden pallets near two nitrous oxide fuel tanks. Firefighters were able to extinguish the fire with little damage and no injuries, but not before officials fearful the tanks could blow up ordered an evacuation of the airport.

Fire at a Spaceship Company hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Fire at a Spaceship Company hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Although the airport and Virgin Galactic downplayed the seriousness of what they called a small fire, the incident was actually more threatening than they admitted. If the firefighters had not sprayed down the tanks to keep them cool, they could have exploded and caused major damaged, injuries and possibly deaths.

Throughout the year, the airport marked the 10th anniversary SpaceShipOne’s successful flights into space. On June 21, Mike Melvill recounted his adventures piloting the SpaceShipOne on the first private suborbital spaceflight exactly a decade earlier to an overflow audience in the spaceport’s board room.

The talk was both highly entertaining due to Melvill’s excellent story telling and supremely depressing for some in the audience. For those who had personally witnessed Melvill’s historic flight in Mojave a decade before, the achievement seemed to herald a new private space age. It wouldn’t be long before  hundreds and then thousands of people would fly into space every year. A decade later, none of that had happened yet. In fact, there had been no flights at all into space from Mojave.

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)
Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

Witt knew better. For years, he had quietly predicting it would take until 2015 for companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR to begin suborbital spaceflights. As that year approached, they appeared to be more or less on schedule.

On Oct. 4, the 10th anniversary of SpaceShipOne winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize was celebrated at the Witt Event Center. At the luncheon, Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson promised his company would begin commercial suborbital flights with SpaceShipTwo in 2015.

It was not to be. On the morning of Oct. 31, SpaceShipTwo broke up during a flight test over the Mojave Desert. Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury was killed in crash; an injured Pete Siebold was thrown free of the wreckage and came down safely under parachute.

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Four hours later, Witt found himself hosting a press conference inside the Stuart O. Witt Event Center during which ashen-faced Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites officials explained that spaceflight was hard. That was not news to anyone in Mojave. Alsbury became the fourth person to die on the SpaceShipTwo program. Three Scaled Composites engineers were killed in a test stand accident in 2007.

What most people didn’t know was that Witt and his team were already reeling from another tragedy. Seven days earlier, instructor Michael Hill and student pilot Ilam Zigante of Germany had taken off from the spaceport in a two-seat, single-engine aircraft. Something went wrong; the plane went down near Randsburg, killing both men.

Hill was a well liked and respected instructor at the National Test Pilot School, where he was director of business operations. He previously had been a Navy test pilot. Eleven days after his death, Hill was elected to serve on the Mojave spaceport’s Board of Directors, a seat he would never take.

“I can tell you that none of us really remember November,” Witt told a radio interviewer. “It was very somber. It was just a very difficult November. Come the first of December through the holidays, I saw activity pick up significantly. Now that we’re into January, people are off and running.”

If there was one saving grace for Witt, it was the character that was shown by members of his staff and others at the airport as they responded to the dual tragedies.

“I’ve never been so pleased to be a member of a small team with Character, who choose to make a big difference for our nation and the world,” Witt wrote in a letter in November.

Despite the setbacks of last year, Witt remains optimistic that 2015 — his last running the spaceport — will be a better year.

“In retrospect, regardless of how we view any success in 2014 the reality of the events of 24 and 31 October will live with us forever,” he said in his annual new year’s letter. “As we move into 2015, we must constantly realize that the work we perform is essential for the continued mobility of the traveling world but the cost associated with our achievement is often high and deeply personal.”