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Rocket Man

From: Frank Warren <frank-warren.nul>
Date: Thu, 12 Feb 2004 07:26:40 -0800
Fwd Date: Thu, 12 Feb 2004 14:18:20 -0500
Subject: Rocket Man

Source: The Christian Monitor


February 11, 2004

Rocket Man

Aviation legend and convention-buster Burt Rutan leads the
charge among civilians out to claim the point position on manned
spaceflight. Will such barnstormers of space supplant NASA?

By Bruce V. Bigelow | Contributor to The Christian Science

February 11, 2004

   The high desert 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles was once
the bottom of an ancient sea. Today highways run arrow-straight
through the desolate terrain, past crooked Joshua trees that
stand like sentinels. At an airport near the old mining town of
Mojave, rows of mothballed jetliners bake in the desiccating

In vivid contrast, the Mojave Airport also offers a window on
the future. Here sit the Civilian Flight Test Center and some of
the most advanced aircraft in the world. For more than 60 years,
the real attraction of this place has been the azure dome
overhead, where a flier can see for 30 miles, 360 days a year.
It is pilot heaven, home of Edwards Air Force Base, and the
birthplace of the sonic boom.

Mojave also is home to Burt Rutan. In a world that celebrates
test pilots and fighter jocks, Mr. Rutan has attained his own
special status as one of the nation's most visionary aircraft

To the public at large, Rutan is best known as the creator of
Voyager, the willowy plane that hangs in the lobby at the
National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The propeller-
driven aircraft made aviation history in 1986, flying nonstop
around the world on a single tank of gas.

To aviation enthusiasts, Rutan is renowned for creating designs
that marry lightweight materials with sophisticated ideas. His
home-built craft have set new standards for speed, distance, and
fuel economy.

Now 60, the crusty engineer with the trademark muttonchops is
poised to again seize the public imagination by applying his do-
it-yourself approach in a quest for space - one that
deliberately excludes NASA. And even as Washington dreams - one
year after the loss of Columbia - about moon bases and missions
to Mars, some experts maintain that it is private individuals
like Rutan who will shape the race for the final frontier.

Bankrolled by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, Rutan plans to
send three civilian test pilots in a rocket plane to the
threshold of space. By making the subor- bital flight to an
altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) twice within two weeks,
Rutan hopes to win the $10 million X Prize, an international
contest created by a group of space enthusiasts eight years ago.
The idea was modeled after the contest with a $25,000 purse that
spurred pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh to prove in 1927 that
it was possible to fly a plane alone across the Atlantic.

Rutan not only wants to set records and make history, but also
to shatter conventional notions about the near-impossibility of
private ventures sending ordinary folks into space.

"He's motivated by a desire to be different and startling as
much as anything else," says Peter Garrison, a contributing
editor at Flying magazine who has known Rutan for 30 years.
"He's certainly the most prolific and imaginative designer of
his time."

Mindful of his role on the global stage, Rutan wants to show
that he has developed the world's first private program for
manned spaceflight - and then hand the keys to a new generation
of pioneers he calls "the barnstormers of space."

His vision of the future of space travel includes a visceral
antibureaucratic streak that Rutan expresses with blunt candor.
He has emphasized that his space program, which cost an
estimated $25 million, has used no government money and relied
on no government labs.

"We have no government customers and no government technical
interface," he told a group of test pilots in Los Angeles in
September. "That's fun."

When Rutan first unveiled his experimental spacecraft for the
public last April, he also was, consciously or unconsciously,
conjuring up the lost gonzo spirit of the Right Stuff.

In the 1950s, the United States was developing two different
ways of launching astronauts into space. One was the Mercury
Redstone rocket, a ballistic missile topped by a manned capsule
that test pilots back then derisively called "Spam in a can."
The other was the X-15, a rocket-powered aircraft carried to
high altitude by a B-52 bomber. The X-15 dropped away from the
mother ship, the rocket engine ignited in midair, and the pilot
aimed for the great yawning void.

This was the way Chuck Yeager had punched a hole in the sky in
1947 when he broke the sound barrier in the X-1, the ship that
was the primogenitor of all the winged rockets that followed.

With the ascendancy of NASA, however, the idea of reaching space
in a rocket plane evaporated like a contrail in the sky.

Now Rutan has returned to that path not taken. With no B-52s at
his command, he created a stunningly unusual mother ship, the
White Knight, to carry his rocket plane and launch it at about
50,000 feet.

The star-spangled rocket plane, SpaceShipOne, has made at least
eight flights since last April, when Rutan announced his quest
at Scaled Composites, the company he founded in 1982. This
lightweight spaceship, made of graphite and epoxy, has short
wings and twin vertical tails that flip up to act like a giant
air brake, enabling the aircraft to drop like a shuttlecock as
it reenters the atmosphere.

After several glide tests, SpaceShipOne broke the sound barrier
in its first powered test flight Dec. 17, a milestone that
coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers'
first flight.

As the rocket ship reached near weightlessness at 68,000 feet -
 the apex of its flight - ground observers heard test pilot
Brian Binnie exclaim over the radio, "Wow! That was a wild

But Rutan isn't ready to step up to the microphones just yet.
The rocket man has rebuffed media requests to discuss his work
in progress in recent months. Instead, he has burrowed into his
Mojave lair, sending strong signs that he won't reappear until
he has accomplished the 21st-century equivalent of landing at Le
Bourget field.

Even if Rutan is successful, the extent to which private
barnstormers could displace NASA's role in the future of manned
spaceflight remains uncertain.

Daniel Goldin, the former NASA administrator who got into a
rancorous tiff over space tourist Dennis Tito's $20 million ride
to the international space station in 2001, professes great
respect for Rutan.

"I think Burt Rutan is just one of the great engineers of our
time," says Mr. Goldin. "He has done wonderful things. That
Voyager, nobody thought it could be done, and Burt pulled it

Goldin would not discuss how aerospace entrepreneurs, wannabe
tourists, and other space buffs have embraced Rutan's venture.

Still, even the last man to walk on the moon seems to doubt NASA
will be the one to send his successor there. In an interview
with Australian Broadcasting in 2002, 30 years after his
mission, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt spoke of mining
the moon as a logical step toward sending humans to Mars.

"There's a lot of engineering, exciting engineering that has to
be done to make it possible and economic to do," Mr. Schmitt
said. "We need to find a way to create that technology base
without asking the taxpayer to do it for us."

Such thinking is what makes Rutan's venture so appealing.

"Burt Rutan's project is huge for the alternative space
community," says Greg Klerkx, author of "Lost in Space," a
recently published book that describes NASA as a bureaucratic
monopoly that strangles private initiatives in its realm.

"For the first time, really, you have the combination of a
company with a strong track record in aircraft and spacecraft
development paired with significant private backing," Mr. Klerkx
explains. "If Scaled Composites is successful with SpaceShipOne,
it will be a simple, relatively inexpensive template upon which
other vehicles can be built."

At NASA headquarters in Washington, spokesman Michael Braukus
calls Rutan's work "phenomenal." But he says the space agency
doesn't really have an official position concerning manned
spaceflights undertaken by the private sector.

"What the X Prize is trying to do is stimulate space tourism,
and that's wonderful," Mr. Braukus says. But space tourism, he
adds, "is not something that NASA's geared toward."

Saying that he is not familiar with the alternative space
community or its specific complaints about NASA, Braukus
maintains that "what NASA does is high-risk research. That's
what we've done since we were founded.... We do things that are
dangerous, that deal with exploration, in aviation as well as in

But Rutan's views about NASA have only sharpened with scorn
through the years. To Rutan, NASA's culture of denial has led to
too many accidents, its technology is too expensive, and its
programs have grown - ironically - too risk-averse.

"We seem to be making acronyms for engineering welfare, rather
than having the courage to actually fly something," Rutan said
last April.

In his presentation for test pilots in Los Angeles last fall,
Rutan referred to NASA as "Nay-Say" and promised the brotherhood
of fliers that his quest to reach space would create "a whole
bunch of new jobs."

"And I mean fun jobs," he said, with another jab at the
aerospace bureaucracy, "and not just a job to test the latest
software upgrade for the F-18."

Elbert L. "Burt" Rutan was born June 17, 1943, and raised in
Dinuba, in California's Central Valley. As the youngest of three
children, he paid close attention as his brother Dick, who was
five years older, took flying lessons in 1954. Their sister Nell
later became a flight attendant for American Airlines, although
Dick says she did not share her brothers' fixation.

"Both of us had an abnormal fascination with aviation," recalls
Dick Rutan, who would go on to fly 325 combat missions in

"Of course, his particular interest was in the design and
structure and the flying products and stuff," adds Dick. "And
me, I just wanted to fly."

Dick remembers their mother taking Burt to buy a model-airplane
kit, but even then his younger brother didn't want to build
planes from a kit. He wanted balsa wood so he could build his
own airplanes, "so that was his focus from Day 1."

At 16, Burt soloed in a single-engine Aeronca Champ after
logging only five hours and 44 minutes in flight training. He
attended California Polytechnic State University, San Luis
Obispo, and graduated with an aeronautical engineering degree in
1965. For the next seven years, he worked as a civilian flight-
test project engineer at Edwards Air Force Base.

In 1974, after a two-year stint as test-center director for the
Bede Aircraft Co. in Newton, Kan., Rutan returned to Mojave,
where he founded the Rutan Aircraft Factory to develop his own
designs for the growing market in home-built aircraft.

At the time, home-built aircraft took a lot of metal fabrication
and woodworking skills in mini machine shops. Blueprints
practically required an engineering degree to read, and there
was little text for guidance. But Rutan's small company came on
the scene with bold new ideas for aircraft made of lightweight
composite materials, and it offered customers an extraordinary
level of service and technical support.

In 1975, when the prototype VariEze landed at the annual fly-in
convention at Oshkosh, Wis., "it practically caused a mental
meltdown," says Dan Patch, a pilot who lives in San Diego. "This
amazing little plane just 'dropped in' after flying all the way
from California, and proceeded to break the closed-course
endurance record for its weight class four days later," says Mr.
Patch. "No loud talk, no self-promotion, just, boom, right in
front of the world's largest gathering of aviators."

Patch says he later heard Rutan give a talk about his VariEze
prototype, and found elements of the aerodynamic design
extremely sophisticated. Having a doctorate in engineering
physics, Patch says he had a pretty good idea that Rutan knew
what he was talking about. He bought a set of plans the week
they came out.

"Well before I finished my plane, VariEzes were setting records
for range and efficiency," says Patch. "It flew circles around
the increasingly overpriced and old-fashioned 'factory built'

Another VariEze owner, Rich Steck of Roswell, Ga., remembers
attending an open house that Rutan regularly held for home-built
enthusiasts at the Mojave Airport. After patiently answering
their questions, Rutan rolled out his VariEze prototype. Rutan
fired up the Volkwagen-engine conversion, recalls Mr. Steck.

"It quit just as he lifted his long left leg into the cockpit,"
Steck writes in an e-mail. "He glanced at the instrument panel,
grinned, and said: 'Runs longer with the fuel switch on.' "

To visiting pilots, the episode made Rutan seem fallible, and
human, Steck recalls. "Made it seem possible we could build what
he had designed."

Rutan followed the success of his VariEze design with a series
of other remarkable aircraft, including the Defiant and Long-EZ.
By the early 1980s, however, he decided to transition out of the
home-built aircraft market, mostly because of mounting pressures
arising from his exposure to liability.

"I always felt that [I should take] very good care of those that
I did sell plans to, and help them ethically and safely build
and fly their airplanes," Rutan said in an online interview
about five years ago with Air & Space magazine. "The guys that I
was at risk from - and still am - are people that buy an
airplane someone else has built, and the relatives of whoever he
may take for a ride."

In 1982, when Rutan founded Scaled Composites as a separate
business, it was chiefly to make proprietary designs and
composite scale models of prototype aircraft designs for various
customers. For the next 20 years or so, he became involved in a
number of projects, including his biggest failure - developing
an aircraft for Beech Aircraft in 1985 called the Starship. The
project was intended to replace the Beechcraft King Air, but
commercial production proved to be too complicated and costly
for the Raytheon subsidiary.

By the following year, Rutan was overseeing test flights of the
Voyager, with his brother Dick and copilot Jeana Yeager at the
controls. While Burt Rutan oversaw the design and construction,
his brother and Yeager oversaw fundraising for the $2 million
mission, with much of that donated by fellow aviators.

"It was a very informal thing, very much like a private 'skunk
works,' if you will," said Jack Norris, who served as technical
director in mission control for the Voyager flight. "He can do a
couple of calculations and wing everything in between because he
started out as a kid designing and building model airplanes."

Yet Mr. Norris, who spent his career in the aerospace industry,
says he also was struck by how quickly Burt Rutan could absorb
information. During a Voyager test flight off the California
coast, Norris realized nobody had prepared a press release that
included all the key information about the flight. So he wrote a
draft and showed it to Rutan after he returned from an out-of-
town trip.

"I never saw anybody in any circumstance read a dense piece of
paper, thoroughly digest it, and come back with the exact answer
anywhere near that quick," Norris says. "In about 30 seconds he
had read the whole thing, digested it, and said, essentially,
these 11 things are right, these seven things are wrong, and
here's what you want to say. Boom. Boom. Boom."

In the years following Voyager's flight, Rutan's career soared
as Scaled Composites produced scores of startling and
imaginative designs for aircraft. The company also developed a
wing-type sail for an America's Cup catamaran in 1988, a General
Motors Ultralite show car in 1992, and a 40-meter wind-power

Rutan also took on a number of military contracts, including
"black budget" work - military research done under extreme
secrecy - on a 40 percent scale model of the B-2 Stealth bomber.
Rutan's company also designed a high-altitude, remotely piloted
vehicle for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. It built
a 62 percent scale prototype of an advanced transport plane for
the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"He was a pioneer in the use of composite materials in private
aircraft," says Dick Rutan. What defines his brother, he says,
is his ability to "dive into his pool of nonsense and chaos" and
find the perfect solution way out in a corner someplace.

Today, Burt Rutan has overseen designs for more than 300
aircraft. Forty have been built and flight-tested. But the only
Rutan design ever certified by the Federal Aviation
Administration is Starship, which was discontinued shortly after
Beech entered production. The rest are classified strictly as
experimental aircraft designs.

"It would be a waste" to seek certification, says Dick. "He's an
innovative, creative designer. Why should he waste all of his
time trying to certify an airplane with a bunch of know-nothing

As it is, his intensity may have carried a cost. Burt Rutan has
been married four times. He had health problems in 1998, and
since then only flies with a second pilot seated next to him.

"That really was his own fault," says his brother. "He was just
so engrossed in his designs and in running the company that he
just gave himself a heart attack. He was drinking about 20 cups
of coffee a day, sitting ... in front of a computer, eating
tacos, and popping Rolaids."

"Burt can be funny and pleasant and sometimes he can even be
modest," says Flying magazine's Mr. Garrison, "[but] he has a
big ego and he wants things to go his own way. People who work
for him don't always have the most adoring reports."

At the same time, Garrison says, Rutan's health problems "gave
him a sense that he has a limited amount of time to establish
his place in the firmament. And that's what this [space program]
is all about."

It may also be helping to drive his participation in another
big-budget project: to build a plane to fly nonstop around the
globe with a single pilot - and in a third of the time it took
Voyager. Test flown last month, Virgin Atlantic-backed
GlobalFlyer was designed by Scaled Composites to loop the earth
in 80 hours.

After 10 months, Scaled Composites still has given no indication
when SpaceShipOne will attain its ultimate goal in the
thermosphere. But Rutan's team appears close - and the timing
could provide another, more poignant, contrast for the people
who live and work beneath the celestial sphere.

In 1986, after Rutan's Voyager was two or three days into its
around-the-world flight, people "started to catch onto the idea
that this thing was real," says Norris, "and maybe it's going to
happen." It was just before Christmas, the same year in which
the shuttle Challenger was lost. "So where the Challenger was a
big downer," Norris remembers, "the Voyager turned out to be
this big uplifter."

Now Rutan is poised to do it again with SpaceShipOne, just as
the nation recalls the loss of Columbia one year ago. If he has
his way, his base in this ancient landscape could soon be
designated a legal spaceport.

The high desert north of Los Angeles really is a place of vivid

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