Kern leaders meet Pence in Mojave

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Kern leaders meet Pence in MojaveA culture of innovation and collaboration that facilitated the birth of the commercial space industry in our own backyard vaulted into prominence Tuesday when Vice President Mike Pence toured Mojave Air and Space Port.

“The work accomplished in Mojave fulfills this administration’s dream to keep America at the forefront of both private and public space travel,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

“The men and women who work at Virgin Galactic and Stratolaunch are truly engineering the future, and I am honored to represent a community that has earned the attention of not just our nation, but the world at large.”

McCarthy hosted the vice president, along with a contingent of political, military and industry leaders, for the tour.

While McCarthy accompanied Pence on his three-day sweep through California — which included fundraisers for Republican candidates, capitol policy discussions for tax reform and visits to sites of California’s vicious wildfires — the congressman acknowledged a special pride in the two-hour visit to Mojave.

Air Force Two, carrying Pence and his wife Karen, along with McCarthy and a host of staffers, security and media, landed just before 2 p.m. in Mojave — which had been the focus of intense security measures since early that morning.

Karina Drees, CEO of Mojave Air and Space Port, greeted the visitors upon landing and opened the tour with a briefing.

Drees noted that she was on hand in Washington, D.C., last week for the inaugural meeting of the newly reestablished National Space Council, chaired by Pence.

“I heard you talk about watching the moon landing as a child, and like so many people around the world, feeling inspired and developing a passion for space and exploration,” said Drees.

The 42-year-old said that for herself and others in her generation, that landmark moment was the launch of the shuttle program.

“For the first time, the possibility of the average citizen going to space was actually becoming a reality. America’s enthusiasm for space exploration was renewed,” she said.

“The unfortunate Challenger accident ultimately tested society’s tolerance for risk, and that excitement we felt for space exploration declined.

“This is where we get that fire back,” said Drees. Companies like Virgin Galactic and Stratolaunch Systems, the next stops on Pence’s whirlwind visit to the spaceport, “are bringing this excitement back to the nation.”

Drees noted that not only has private investment into the space sector driven down costs, but it has also offered something else the government has been unable to duplicate — a tolerance for risk.

Mojave has served as a hub of groundbreaking achievements for decades, from hosting the development and launch of the Voyager (first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe nonstop without refueling) in 1984 to sending the first civilians into space during the Ansari X-Prize in the early 2000s — and now housing developments for aircraft which can send both humans and payloads into space.

“Commercial space was very much a focus of our first meeting of the National Space Council,” Pence told Karina at the briefing, adding that he had great interest in the potential for those future contributions.

After traveling to Houston, Huntsville and Kennedy Space Center, “we wanted to round out this initial lap with you here,” he said. “Mojave is very much a part of the infrastructure of American space exploration today.”

Pence is considered the most high-profile visitor to East Kern since Ronald Reagan was on site for NASA’s Independence Day landing at Edwards Air Force Base in 1982.

“Eastern Kern County was proud to show the vice president, first hand, the important and inspiring work being done to foster new technologies in aerospace and commercial spaceflight,” said Assemblyman Vince Fong, who represents Mojave in the lower house of the state legislature, and was among the spaceport entourage.

“Everyone who comes to see the innovation being done here leaves inspired.”

“I’m very pleased I took the opportunity to attend the event when provided with a very gracious invitation from Leader McCarthy,” said Capt. Paul Dale, commanding officer of the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake.

“I say this because the job being done by the highly skilled workforce at the companies in Mojave is eye-watering in magnitude now and has the potential to be even more so in the future.”

Other notable visitors invited to share in the experience were some of those who helped shape the environment that would become a safe haven for explorers and entrepreneurs — including the spaceport’s previous CEO, Stuart O. Witt, who retired in 2015; former Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division Executive Director Scott O’Neil and NASA Armstrong Director David McBride.

“This experience was a validation that the high desert has delivered on a promise,” said Witt. “It’s not about any one person — these accomplishments are incredibly difficult. It could not have been done by any single individual in any single year. It took a team in an endeavor that went on for generations.”

Witt noted that during his 15 years of leading Mojave, he tried to get Presidents George W. Bush and Barrack Obama, as well as their VPs, to visit. “We just were not there yet. We had not earned our stripes.

“But what I saw, watching the crowd, was that our years of regional cooperative efforts had paid huge dividends.”

Witt recalled that his grandfather drove over from Onyx when President John Kennedy visited China Lake in 1963. “It was an electric moment for the region.”

He shared a moment of similar poignance when his son stayed up all night with him to be on hand for Reagan’s visit. “My son Tim is 35 now. He sat up on my shoulders and waved a flag.

“Having the president in our backyard was something really special. It was a huge moment that had a profound impact on me. Seeing our vice president and hearing him thank us for our vision and leadership, that was a big deal, too.”

Witt said that in addition to the ideal geography, air quality, infrastructure, available technical workforce and access to restricted airspace, East Kern offers a flexibility that governments can only dream of.

“I had the opportunity to execute two-page contracts with billionaires from my office,” he said. Virgin and Stratolaunch helped grow more than 1,000 jobs at the spaceport — and in the process filled a niche for a critical service in the industry.

Virgin, owned by Richard Branson, has already sold hundreds of tickets (valued at up to $250,000 a pop) to send the firsts civilian tourists into space.

Stratolaunch, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is the largest aircraft (based on wingspan) in the world. Each represents a $1 billion infusion into the county and has executed achievements unduplicated anywhere else.

Witt said that this is in no way indicative of failure on the part of the federal government.

“The reality is that the federal government will continue to be an enormous customer. They have now options they didn’t have 50 years ago. They get the services they need, it’s reliable, the private sector provides investment and jobs — who loses?”

“Right now, commercialization of space access is in its infancy — it’s only going to grow from here,” said O’Neil.

In the coming competition for access, East Kern is well positioned to compete, he said. “I think we are at the very beginning of this, and the opportunities for East Kern are great.”

O’Neil said that coordinating the ventures at Mojave with the missions of NASA, the Navy at China Lake, the Air Force at Edwards and the Army at Fort Irwin will be critical. He noted the historic partnerships that have been in place to enable future-focused accomplishments.

“Watching Vice President Mike Pence on this tour, I think he had fun. I think it was an illuminating experience seeing what could happen in a place like this.

“Just coming out here must change your perspective, seeing a small town in the middle of nowhere attracting billionaires and driving technology — this is huge. And it’s just right down the road from us, so there is room for collaboration.”

Both also acknowledged McCarthy’s role in championing the efforts at Mojave, and bringing Pence for a first-hand glimpse.

“This would not have happened without Kevin,” said Witt. “I know he is proud of the technology in his district … he gets excited talking about aerospace, he has regular tours at China Lake, NASA and Mojave, and for every single spaceflight we’ve done under my watch, he was standing right there in Mojave.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people asking, ‘Why did the vice president go to Mojave?’ Well, I think this reflects on the entire region.”

Witt noted that, beginning in the 1940s, sites like China Lake and Edwards launched a culture of innovation that established a commitment to providing solutions that were out of reach for the rest of the world.

“That attitude has prevailed over the years, but it has gotten harder inside the military installations and NASA.

“So they benefit from having a neighbor like Mojave.”

And so do we all. — Ed.

Pictured: Standing in front of the Stratolaunch aircraft are (front, from left) Karen and Vice President Mike Pence, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Steve Knight. On either side of VP Pence, in the background, are Capt. Paul Dale and Assemblymember Vince Fong. -- Photo by Timothy Neipp

Story First Published: 2017-10-13