Branson plays space invaders in California desert

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The Independent Online

Life in Mojave Town, the windswept and deserted frontier trading post in the Californian desert where the new Virgin Galactic base is located, is far from space age.

Life in Mojave Town, the windswept and deserted frontier trading post in the Californian desert where the new Virgin Galactic base is located, is far from space age.

Cindi Van Cleave, who runs a downtown barber shop, expressed more than a little cynicism about the venture. "Of course, the space port is a great idea. But I think if this town benefits, it will be purely accidental. There is a bit of a divide between the town and the airport. They have their little world and we have ours and there ain't too much crossover between them," she said.

Ms Van Cleave's business stands less than 500 yards from Mojave Airport - the vast airstrip and technology park where Sir Richard Branson's £70m project to launch commercial space flights by 2008 for those with $190,000 (£115,000) to spare is based. Yesterday, the British billionaire was visiting the hi-tech hangar to examine designs for the first of five spacecraft which begin construction in the new year.

Plans are being laid for a shiny passenger terminal to host a clientele of millionaire astronauts amid rows of high security installations where companies such as Britain's BAE Systems conduct secret work for the US military.

But just around the corner sits the isolated community of Mojave Town.Located some 80 miles north-west of Los Angeles, it was founded in the late 19th Century as a railway junction and grew as a frontier trading post. But despite being within a few booster rocket lengths of the world's first commercial passenger space port, a venture estimated to generate at least £400m of business for Sir Richard in the coming decades, residents feel they are on a road to nowhere; spectators rather than participants in the white heat of technology.

A by-pass recently moved the Sierra Highway, which runs north from LA, forcing businesses relying on passing trade to close and many homeowners to move on. Almost all employees at the technology park commute from elsewhere. A measure of the town's decline is that the nearest McDonald's is 30 miles away.

Sir Richard, 54, is at pains to underline his long-term aim to democratise space travel, or at least make it affordable to more than the super wealthy. "The gamble we took seems to be paying off; 7,000 people have registered and, at a conservative estimate, we could have 3,000 people flying on Virgin Galactic in the coming years," he said.

If just half of those follow up their intention by paying the fee for the week-long "space experience", which includes five to six minutes of weightlessness at the peak of the sub-orbital space flight, the British billionaire will see a handsome ten-fold return on his initial investment of half a billion dollars.

Among those to have proffered cheques or made "firm reservations" for the early flights of Virgin Galactic - a three-and-a-half-hour flight in a rocket attached below a larger mother ship, are Trevor Beattie, the advertising genius behind such campaigns as FCUK and Dave Navarro, of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. The British entrepreneur has said he wants to fill the first VSS Enterprise flight with his family - including his father who, at 90, would be the world's oldest astronaut.

Members of the town see it as ironic that as well as serving as hub for new technology, the air strip is used as a dumping ground for mothballed commercial airliners, dozens of which, from SwissAir to KLM, can be seen parked on the asphalt as evidence of the downturn in the airline industry.

Residents point out that with its low cost of living, Mojave Town is used also used as a "dumping ground" for welfare claimants from LA County. Others, however, take pride in their community and the fact that, unless a recent proposal to base Virgin Galactic flights out of Las Vegas holds sway, a new generation of pioneers will soon be making its way to Mojave Town, this time to spend rather than make their fortunes.