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Since the 1970s, the Mojave Air & Space Port has hosted some of the world’s most groundbreaking experimental aircraft, from the Rutan Voyager (in 1986, it became the first craft to circumnavigate Earth without stopping or refueling) to SpaceShipOne (which, nearly 20 years later, in 2004, embarked on the first privately funded human spaceflight). Mojave’s remote location keeps its secret programs hidden from prying eyes, while its miles of runway spreading in all directions allow test pilots in peril to land just about anywhere. A Marine Corps auxiliary air station during World War II, Mojave transitioned over the years from air racing venue to West Coast home for private spaceflight companies. Nearby, Vandenberg Space Force Base is the site of the state’s only other spaceport, while the dry lake bed at El Mirage regularly sees test flights of everything from high-performance gliders to race-ready flying cars.

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General Motors is credited with building the car industry’s first proving ground, or PG—a series of hills, straightaways, and hairpin turns on which it could test the safety and performance of its automobiles—in Milford, Michigan, in 1924. The company opted for harsher weather conditions when it opened a desert PG in 1953 on 5,000 acres in Mesa, Arizona. Other major car manufacturers followed suit in the American West, whether in Arizona (Nissan has 4,000 acres in Maricopa; Toyota, 12,000 acres in Wittmann) or California (in the Mojave Desert, Kia has 4,300 acres, and Honda has 2,840 acres). These vast PGs enable car companies to put vehicles through the ringer—in heat chambers, over Belgian blocks, through salt-spray tunnels. They also allow manufacturers to take top-secret prototypes out for a spin beyond the scrutiny of any lookie-loos. In theory, that is. General Motors moved its desert PG some 200 miles west in 2009; it now shares land with the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, where the military’s no-fly zone policy lets GM test out cars without pesky drones overhead.

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Hidden among rust-colored boulders in a barren landscape that stretches for miles in Utah’s arid wilderness lies the Mars Desert Research Station. The powdery sand and the rock formations in the area are almost identical in appearance to the landscape of the red planet, providing the perfect home for the Mars Society’s simulated Mars habitat, one of four in the world. Composed of a greenhouse, a laboratory, a repair shop, and living quarters, the Utah location hosts astronauts and research crews two weeks at a time. Each team is required to wear space suits and follow specific protocols, such as waiting five minutes within a pressurized air lock before entering any building. Mars has very little oxygen and experiences extreme fluctuations in temperature. The research station’s air locks and greenhouse reproduce the conditions astronauts would be working in, letting crews train, analyze response systems, and educate others about the planet.

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As Germany marched through North Africa toward the Suez Canal in 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped George S. Patton Jr. to establish the Desert Training Center in the California, Arizona, and Nevada deserts to mimic the conditions of warfare from Morocco to Egypt. Patton spent only a few months at the military center before departing to plan Operation Torch. But the sprawling complex hosted more than one million soldiers and featured some of the harshest training of World War II. The facilities were primitive; soldiers placed stones to line roads and mark living quarters. By April 1944, the military had vacated the Desert Training Center, and by 1947, it had returned the property to the Bureau of Land Management, which tends to it today. The remaining rock formations and tire tracks—as well as the nearby General Patton Memorial Museum—allow visitors a glimpse of where soldiers once slept, strategized, and celebrated the end of conflict in the Atlantic theater.