Page last updated at 09:40 GMT, Thursday, 7 July 2011 10:40 UK

The new space race lifting off in the Mojave desert

Watch Susan Watts' film in full

Susan Watts
Science editor, BBC Newsnight

If all goes to plan, Friday will be our last chance to see a shuttle take-off. It is a sentimental time for some, the shuttle Atlantis marks the end of an era in human spaceflight.

But in the Californian desert of Mojave they see an opportunity.

Space entrepreneurs at the Mojave Air and Space Port see themselves as the future - making cheap, routine spaceflight available for everyone, not just elite astronauts.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-115) undocks from the International Space Station in this NASA handout photo dated September 17, 2006.
After more than 30 years, Nasa's space shuttle programme is to end

The big corporates, such as Virgin Galactic and Northrop Grumman, work in hangars alongside smaller teams. And they are all chasing the dream of space travel within sight of the Edwards Air Force base where, in the 1950s, test pilots flew to the edge of space before Nasa even existed.

It was from these test pilots - those with the Right Stuff - that Nasa selected its first astronauts, for the Mercury and then the Apollo space programmes.

But these days at Mojave there is palpable disenchantment with Nasa, and even less affection for its hugely expensive 30-year shuttle programme.

"The shuttle was an interruption," Jeff Greason of XCOR told us.

"When I was very much younger I believed that people like you and me would be able to go into space because of the shuttle or what came after it."

Jeff thinks Nasa's bloated bureaucracy stood in the way of that.

'Can-do attitude'

In amongst the discarded cars and bits of old military and civilian planes scattered around the airbase, we spotted the chopped-off front of a Nasa X-34 plane, an unmanned vehicle designed to fly at Mach 8 as part of the Nasa's own research for a spacecraft to come after the shuttle.

But the X-34 never flew, it was cancelled 10 years ago for budgetary reasons.

The town of Mojave is a desert outpost - a sleepy place that has surely seen better days. Now the last billboard before you reach the spaceport advertises bail bonds.

XCOR's experimental rocket-powered plane gives a few moments of weightlessness

The cluster of hangars, some dating back to the 1940s and 50s, sit next door to an airline industry "bone yard", where unwanted planes wait to be scrapped or re-used, preserved in the dry heat of the desert.

And next to the relics, in contrast, shimmering in the 39C heat, stands the brilliant white Stargazer L-1011 drop-plane that belongs to Orbital Sciences Corporation.

It has already carried 40 or so satellites into space by rockets, fired from beneath its belly.

"Mojave is a unique place", Mr Greason told us. His company like the wide open spaces where test flights will not land on anyone if they go wrong, and the can-do attitude.

The beauty of it, he said, is having a community of space companies and rocket scientists literally next door with specialist skills they might share.

Mr Greason's Lynx spacecraft is under construction, with wind-tunnel testing underway.

Step-by-step approach

"It's much more cost effective to first figure out how to do things over and over again cheaply, and then gradually scale up the size and performance," Mr Greason says, "than it is to make the giant leap to a high level of performance, and go back and try to fill in all the missing gaps of how to make it cheap and reliable."

Newsnight visits the sleepy town of Mojave in the Californian desert

He hesitates to say when he might be able to take people into space, but already every XCOR employee has had a glimpse of the future - flying in a rocket-powered plane that gave them a few moments of weightlessness.

"I wanna go - that's why I'm here," XCOR's Mike Massee told us as he showed us around the hangar.

The Lynx craft will be strictly sub-orbital, giving passengers just four-and-a-half minutes of weightlessness by flying at a speed of about Mach 3.

The next step is orbital flights, that means aiming for much higher speeds (the space shuttle re-enters at Mach 25) to take a craft beyond short hops, and into orbit all the way around the Earth.

Lynx epitomises the step-by-step approach, with each step having to pay for itself.

"After the Lynx we will work on an orbital system taking people and payloads all the way into orbit, but even then it will be configured differently to the shuttle and have different missions, because we are a private company and our purpose is to find a way to do things that are profitable".

At nearby Interorbital Systems, husband and wife team Randa and Rod Milliron see themselves as successors to the German rocket designer, Wernher Von Braun, who designed the V2 and the Saturn 5 rocket that launched the Apollo missions.

Rod Milliron spent years working for the big name aerospace companies, but says he is not content to spend his career designing one perfect bolt on a spacecraft.

He wants to be able to say he built the whole thing, and claims to have solved some of the problems the bigger companies are still struggling with.

Rocket cluster

In the Interorbital Systems hangar the small team build their own custom equipment, and were putting the finishing touches to the launch rail of one of their rockets when we arrived.

We're making it more efficient and less expensive - and democratising space
Randa Milliron, Interorbital Systems

Their idea is to cluster as many of these relatively cheap and simple rockets together necessary for each mission.

Randa and Rod have been at Mojave for 16 years, and 2011 is their big year - with their first orbital launch planned for the autumn, which would require eight of their rockets.

They say the first launch - when a dozen or so custom-built pico-satellites, the size of a large baked bean tin, will be sent into orbit - is fully sold out.

Academics have paid a cut-rate $8,000 (nearly £5,000) each for these experiments. Commercial prices will be around three to four times this, which Randa says is a fraction of the cost of current commercial satellite services.

Her plans to send people into orbit come much further down the road, but the workshop at Mojave has a mock-up of the six-seater space module she says she will launch on top of a clustered rocket design that bundles together 64 of their standard rockets.

"I was disappointed that the working rockets that came before the shuttle were cast on the garbage heap. A lot of valuable knowledge about space access was lost," Randa tells me.

"Now that the shuttle is over, it does open opportunities for a company like ours."

"We use the wisdom and the proven designs and technologies that those people developed. Those people were the real geniuses. We're adding modern materials and modern computers and making it more efficient and less expensive - and democratising space," Randa says.

Watch Susan Watts' film in full on Thursday 7 July 2011 at 2230 on BBC Two, and then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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