Machines, Madness and Freedom: Invention in the Mojave Desert

Episode 5: America’s most passionate and daring inventors have built an engineering paradise in the middle of nowhere.

By Ashlee Vance | July 27, 2016

The airport in Mojave, Calif., does not look like much. It’s a modest complex planted in the middle of the Mojave Desert surrounded by ruddy mountains and dust-covered emptiness. The vibe of the place reflects Mojave the town. It feels rundown and depressed and as though its best days—if it ever had best days—are behind it.

But first impressions are deceiving. Because, if you hang around the Mojave airport for a bit, you’ll realize it’s a spectacular place like no other. Open a rusty hangar door, and it opens to reveal a test pilot tinkering on a plane that might set air speed records. Open another, and world-class engineers have gathered to build the biggest plane in history. Open another, and there’s Richard Branson sipping champagne next to his new spaceship. The Mojave airport is the home of the New Aerospace movement.

Mouse McCoy hopes to change the way vehicles are designed and built.
Mouse McCoy hopes to change the way vehicles are designed and built.
Source: Bloomberg

More than that, Mojave is home to a whole engineering revolution. Inventors of all stripes have flocked here to rethink machines. Some work on new rockets, some on new types of aircraft, and some of them work on new types of cars. The Mojave airport may be in the middle of nowhere—but it’s an irresistible draw for engineers with expansive imaginations. It’s the place itself that frees them up to think big and different. It’s America’s great inventor playground, where people can push machines to their limits.

This episode of Hello World explains how the Mojave came to be and why so many unusual inventors call it home. My journey starts in Los Angeles at the workshop of the relentless inventor Dezso Molnar, who then takes me straight to the heart of the Mojave to test out his flying cars. Next up, I witness a great many explosions while hanging out at the Friends of Amateur Rocketry compound and then head to a nearby ranch to commune with my engineering spirit guide—an eccentric named Ricky Ricardo, who throws desert raves at his place.

The engineers come here then because they have no choice.

Back at the Mojave airport, Richard Branson gives me a tour of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and his company’s manufacturing and testing facilities. And then it’s back into the desert with the motorcycle racer and movie director Mouse McCoy to see how he’s using artificial intelligence to reinvent cars. My journey naturally ends with a road trip to the Las Vegas strip in a homemade self-driving car built by hacker extraordinaire George Hotz. If you like fast machines or weird machines, or explosions, or me almost dying, you will enjoy this episode.

There’s something magical about the connection between Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert. It’s in L.A. that people in the aerospace and automotive industries go to work during the week inside of their fancy offices and fancy factories. And it’s in the Mojave that many of these same people head on the weekends to cut loose and try out the ideas their companies don’t condone. The Mojave has everything an engineering radical needs, from super-smooth, dried-up lakebeds to vast open airspace. For decades, L.A. and this desert have helped push American engineering forward.

Dezso Molnar's flying car.
Dezso Molnar's gyrocopter is one piece of his flying car concept.
Source: Bloomberg

For the engineers who settle in the Mojave, there’s an element of sacrifice. The handful of cities surrounding the Mojave airport are depressed. The food is bad. The schools are not great. And the weather is horrendous.

The engineers come here then because they have no choice. They’re compelled to work on grand machines and to spend their lives in the dusty workshops and warehouses. That passion spills out into the Mojave and imbues it with a spirit that you won’t find in Los Angeles or Silicon Valley. If you have a chance, it’s worth a visit. All the better if you can flutter in in your own flying car.

Watch more from Hello World

Episode 2: Sweden
Why Sweden Is So Good at Making Tech Everyone Wants

Episode 3: Israel
How the Constant Threat of War Shaped Israel’s Tech Industry

Episode 4: Iceland
Iceland’s Cutting-Edge Tech Thrives in a Punishing Terrain