California Prefers Trains to Nowhere over Rocket Ships

In the grand scheme of the ongoing economic disaster being wrought by Sacramento, it’s perhaps not a big thing, but it’s very symbolic. On the same day that the California legislature passed a law authorizing an unaffordable low-speed, “high-speed” train along the heavily traveled corridor connecting the San Joaquin Valley metroplexes of Bakersfield and Madera (where only three percent of the projected riders live), a promising young California company, like so many in recent years, announced that it was pulling up at least some of its Golden State stakes and heading to the Lone Star State.

Once upon a time, southern California was a center of human spaceflight. In the sixties, Rockwell International and McDonnell Douglas (since absorbed into Boeing) built many of the machines that took men to the moon, and later, Rockwell built the space shuttle in Palmdale and Downey, and McDonnell Douglas was a major contractor for the space station in Huntington Beach. But in the nineties, NASA compelled the companies to move most of their human spaceflight business to Texas, Alabama, and Florida, where the costs were lower, and by the turn of the century, there was very little left. Fortunately, a renaissance has begun. In the past decade, a number of new companies have formed in southern California dedicated to putting humans into space, most notably Space Exploration Technologies in Hawthorne, near Los Angeles International Airport, and several companies in the desert spaceport town of Mojave, a hundred miles north.

But on Friday, XCOR Aerospace announced that after thirteen years of operation in Mojave, where it was founded, it is moving its primary research and development activities to Midland, Texas, where it’s being offered millions in incentives by the state.

There are certainly downsides to the plan. It’s never easy to abandon friends and homes for a journey half a continent away, and there was a reason that the company was founded in Mojave. In the last decade, the town has become a hotbed of aerospace innovation. XCOR is just one of several companies pushing the envelope not just of performance, but also of cost effectiveness in spaceflight. This is because of the town's favorable flying weather and access to the large, restricted airspace just to the south at Edwards Air Force Base and NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. Its proximity to Los Angeles, with its remaining technological infrastructure, has been invaluable as well, not to mention the culture, and the variety of southern California geography and scenery. From beaches to desert to mountains, L.A. is an attractive vicinity for employees. West Texas, in contrast, is hundreds of miles from any major urban center and farther still from any ocean.