| Thursday, April 21, 2005
A vision in flight
Burt Rutan, the genius behind
SpaceShipOne, believes space tourism is destined to become a
huge industry in the next decade or so
Burt Rutan may have secured his place in space flight
history last Oct. 4, when SpaceShipOne captured the Ansari
X-Prize of $10 million by flying with a pilot and enough
ballast for a passenger beyond the atmosphere, within two
weeks of having done it before. But he had already become a
legendary aircraft and aerospace designer - 38 new airplane
designs in 30 years in the business - and his ideas about the
future are almost enough to make you gasp.
Rutan, who spoke at a Reason Foundation gathering in Orange
County earlier this month, believes suborbital space tourism
will become a big industry, and sooner rather than later.
That's important because "you've got to have thousands,
tens of thousands, of people enjoying it in order to figure
out what to do with it," he told Reason magazine's Ted Balaker
in a recent interview. "We never would have invented the use
of the Internet, the communication and the commerce, and
everything if you had just a few dozen people with computers."
That could lead to much more extensive exploration of space,
and an environment in which ordinary people, not just a few
dozen government-designated professional pilots and
scientists, will enjoy space travel.
Is the interest there? When I drove to the Mojave airport
last October to watch that historic flight I was astounded at
the size of the crowd. The press contingent was large enough
for a presidential inauguration or political convention. I
didn't talk to all of them, but I'd venture that almost all of
those thousands want to take a space flight sometime, and not
just for a few seconds. (My boss actually volunteered in the
early 1980s to be a "Journalist in Space," a program that was
scuttled after the Challenger disaster. I'd like to do it
The terms of the X-Prize were designed to create incentives
to build a reusable, potentially commercial spacecraft rather
than something that would consume months or even years between
flights. Rutan won $25 million in backing from Microsoft
co-founder Paul Allen in part by having a record of
innovation. His Voyager aircraft, now on permanent display at
the Air and Space Museum in Washington, was the first to fly
around the world without refueling, completing the nine-day
flight in December 1986.
SpaceShipOne is going to the Smithsonian, too. But first,
Rutan will take it to the elementary school in Ohio he
attended. Kids under 12 will be invited to touch it - for a
reason. "Kids need to have hopes and dreams," he told an
audience at the Reason Weekend in Dana Point for friends of
that magazine and foundation recently. "All the first space
pioneers were kids during the first exciting burst of airplane
development. Lately kids haven't had the feeling that they
could be part of exploring space unless they were one of the
Government tends to call space vehicles "modules,"
"capsules" or "craft." "But I think kids want to fly in a
space ship," Rutan says. So that's what he called his
Not only did Allen agree to bankroll the SpaceShipOne
project, Richard Branson, the charmingly eccentric
entrepreneur behind Virgin Airways and other enterprises,
announced in Mojavethe day SpaceShipOne succeeded that he was
ordering several of the next design - a multi-passenger
spacecraft suitable for tourist flight. Branson thinks he'll
not only make history but make money doing so.
Rutan agrees. "Within five years we'll have quite expensive
space tourism flights," he predicted. "Two to three years
after that they'll be much more widely affordable." He
predicts that 80,000 people will have flown in space in the
next 10 years or so. After that competition will make it
Since he's looking at a new industry, he emphasizes that it
will have to be much safer - by a factor of at least 100 -
than the government's space program has been. He notes that
the government has averaged one fatality per 62 flights,
whereas in the early days of the air travel - when planes were
much more fragile than they are now - there was one fatality
per 31,000 flights. Commercial space travel will have to be at
least that safe if not safer.
In 30 years and with 38 brand-new designs, Rutan has yet to
lose or even seriously injure a pilot during a flight.
The other thing is that he's upfront about is that the
early flights will be mainly for fun. "Quite frankly, we don't
know what space flight is for," he told the Reason audience.
"We'll find out when thousands of people have done it and I
have dozens of competitors."
He reminded us that in the early days of computers people
didn't know what they were really for either. People talked
about balancing their checkbooks, but few used them for that.
Instead they played games and played with the computer's
capabilities. They had fun. Then they discovered practical
"But computers didn't become really practical until
everybody had one and the Internet was expanded," he said.
It was a progression that neither computer giant IBM nor
the government successfully predicted.
He also has some more serious analysis of the fact that
since space flight has been a government monopoly there has
been a severe deficit in innovation. Beyond his charming habit
of pronouncing NASA as "naysay," which delighted the large
crowd in Mojave and the smaller crowd at the Reason Weekend,
he marshals facts and figures.
In 1908, he notes, only 10 pilots had flown airplanes. By
1912, thousands of pilots in 39 countries had flown dozens of
different models. That was before mail planes, before World
War I demonstrated military uses for airplanes, long before
there was a commercial airline industry, and long before the
development of practical jet planes.
By contrast, in the first year after Russian Yuri Gagarin
ventured into space, there were five manned space flights. In
2004, 44 years later, there were five manned space flights,
"two in Russia and three in Mohave."
That's because when government runs a program it virtually
stifles innovation, because innovation involves risk, since
most proposed innovations don't work. Thus the innovation
cycle disappears. "You need competition and mistakes for
useful innovations to prove themselves, and that can happen
only in the private sector," Rutan insists.
"We need the atmosphere of 1909, when hundreds of people
figured that if a couple of bicycle shop guys from Ohio could
do it, they could do it too," Rutan said. "I hope that
hundreds of people figure that if that Rutan guy can do it,
they can do it too. There's a lot going on even now that you
haven't heard about."
SpaceShipOne incorporated three brand-new technologies (the
government is still using 1950s technology). Perhaps the most
exciting was the "feather re-entry," where the wings are
angled - adjusted pneumatically rather than electrically
because electric systems are more prone to problems - and the
vehicle becomes (my analogy, not Rutan's) a bit like badminton
shuttlecock that automatically turns over and rights itself
for re-entry. Rutan's people also developed their own rocket
technology, where "the fuel is rubberand laughing gas -
nothing dangerous." The cabin is also not pressurized.
Rutan believes if space flight is safe, the money will be
there; his own situation tends to bear him out. He says he has
three groups that want to fund 100 percent of the next
project, none of whom he solicited. His company, Scaled
Composites, will be picking one soon. Few entrepreneurs have
that luxury, but Rutan observes that "when you're begging for
money, you'll often take it even if the terms aren't right,
which is why most entrepreneurs fail."
A technological innovator who's an unaplogetic and
successful entrepreneur who sincerely hopes there will be
dozens more like him, some of whom will outstrip his
accomplishments? We could use more people like Burt Rutan.
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