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What a Rocket Startup That Helped Create the ‘New Space’ Wave Leaves Behind

The bankruptcy of Masten Space Systems, a ragtag operation that worked with NASA and Darpa, marks the end of an inspiring chapter in the commercial space industry.

Masten Space Systems founder David Masten in Mojave, Calif.

Masten Space Systems founder David Masten in Mojave, Calif.

Photographer: Spencer Lowell

In May 2010 a crude-looking rocket caught Elon Musk’s attention. Called Xombie, it could fly high into the air, cut its engine midflight, restart, and then land gently back on the ground. It was the kind of technology that Musk’s own rocket company, SpaceX, aspired to create, and he marveled that the five-person team behind Xombie had pulled off such a feat. “Pretty cool!” Musk wrote in an email to SpaceX employees that included a link to a video of the Xombie test flight.

Xombie had been constructed by a group of rocket renegades working at a startup called Masten Space Systems. Founded in 2004, the tiny company operating out of the Mojave Desert was known as a place where young engineers could try out bold ideas. After Xombie came other vehicles—Xoie, Xaero, Xodiac, and finally the XL-1, a spacecraft meant to land on the moon for NASA as part of a $75.9 million contract.