Burt Rutan: Faster, Higher

Burt_rutan_01Photo: Geoff Oliver Bugbee, www.geoffbugbee.com

Burt Rutan is slated to speak in a few seconds on Space, inc. I'm thinking of a post last spring where he suggested the NASA was in the business of archeology, not space travel.

To anyone who has linked to the ideaFestival or blogged, I'll be looking around for posts. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few - Bruno Giussani, Rob May, Ethan Zuckerman. I know there are more. Thanks for your contributions.

His presentation begins with thumping video montage of SpaceShipOne.

We are the only species that looks forward to differences. We look for breakthroughs. It makes us human. The inspiration that creative people get happens when we are kids. Breakthroughs requires risk, born in crises.

NASA, which he refers to as "nay-say," does development, not research. "If half the people says its impossible, then its research."

Other points:

  • One must have confidence in nonsense. Breakthroughs happen often when we're looking for something else.
  • Breakthroughs can't be forced by spending large sums of money. R&D exists often in inverse relationship to breakthroughs.
  • A working environment can be fostered to encourage the new.

By 1973, the citizens of this country could have been asking their government when they could go into space. "Oh, it's too dangerous. Wait 30 years." When Rutan asked the question in 2003, the response: "Oh, it's too dangerous. Wait 30 years."

A history of the frantic, bold, risk-taking very early era follows. There weren't drawings. There was experimentation. Anything that didn't kill the pilot had good flying qualities, by definition. The configuration of the craft flown today were developed.

Kids. All of his heroes were kids during the pre-World War 1. His spark came while in the back yard when a formation of B-36's flew at low altitude over his head. The noise was captivating.

His description of working with the homebuilt aircraft buyer was important to breakthroughs at Scaled Composites, his company.

Couple of points about the 1961 to 1973 time period. In seven years we developed five different launch vehicles and sent men to the moon via all five.

The Saturn V rocket, in only the FIRST full flight, we sent men in orbit around the moon. Rutan gets emotional just thinking about that.

After 1973 the program collapsed. The space shuttle's goal was to lower the cost. We knew it was a failure. We threw away technology because we could lower the waste of money by flying the shuttle.  His description of the plan put together by the government is tough, tough for its lack of imagination and worthy goals. There is nothing new that will help us to get the planets. It will dumb down a whole generation of engineers.

He believes we are overdue for an innovation cycle for manned space flight. He shows a graph that plots all the space manned flight since 1960. In 2005 we had the same number of manned space flights.

What's wrong?

SpaceShipOne was a personal goal. The reason, he says, was the inspiration he had as a kid.

The program is run without any government funding.

Research, not development.

The components of the White Knight, the carrier, are exactly the same as SpaceShipOne to qualify the pilots. Paying customers will be able to ride in the White Knight as well as the successor to SpaceShipOne.

He describes the reasons for ditching the retry issues that made the space shuttle margin for error - precise reentry angle and attitude. Instead, he used the idea of a shuttlecock to configure his craft for reentry. The craft stably and relatively slowly descends straight down. Lower the risk. Innovative.


The FAA regulatory authorities are only concerned that your parts don't hit someone on failure, which they fairly assume. Rutan wanted to be regulated by the same folks regulating aircraft, "who knew what an airplane was."

The next steps are sub-orbital flight. But there will be no destination. Customers will have a big window and be able to unstrap and float around. Potentially 100,000 people total.

He believes the environment will breed further breakthroughs. He believes commercial traffic will be able to fly higher and faster than the best military aircraft, which, he says, are designs from the 50's, and on which "you just bought a ticket." It should goose the innovation factor in the government.

What good is this?

There a few things on his slide to explain why its good. One thing stood out.

"Kids." I get that.