ARLINGTON, Virginia -- Maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan kicked off the 24th International Space Development Conference here today with an exuberant, yet pointed presentation chiding NASA and the nation's aerospace industry for not working hard enough to excite the next generation of space explorers and resting on the laurels of past successes and ideas.
At the conference, put on by the National Space Society (NSS), Rutan was awarded for his work and the success in 2004 of his SpaceShipOne project. Last June, Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, successfully launched the first privately financed and built sub-orbital spacecraft, SpaceShipOne.
Rutan was presented with the NSS's Wernher von Braun Memorial Award. The trophy, which includes replicas of von Braun's earliest spaceship designs, was presented to Rutan by Konrad Dannenberg, a former Apollo Program Propulsion expert for NASA, as well as one of the only few remaining members of von Braun's rocket-building team.
In accepting the award, Rutan launched into a criticism of the nation's current state of spaceflight, apologizing to the audience beforehand lest he insult employees of NASA or prime aerospace industry employees.
"I'm absolutely embarrassed that the average age of those people who have left the atmosphere are as old as I am," Rutan, 61, told the 300-plus audience. "That is totally wrong."
Apollo moonwalker Buzz Aldrin was in attendance. Rutan called him an inspiration and a friend and said that as a young man in the 1960s, he was "as excited as hell" that the people that made up NASA during that era "had the courage to go somewhere where no human had gone before" by taking risks with often untried and untested rocket technologies like the Saturn rocket systems.
Risks like these "don't register with today's NASA," he said.
While Rutan says he was optimistic that newly appointed NASA chief administrator Mike Griffin might be just what the agency needs to become reinvigorated, he was skeptical that the leading aerospace companies that work with NASA will try revolutionary ideas to implement the agency's Vision for Space Exploration to go back to the Moon and on to Mars.
Rutan voiced the frustration that the big aerospace companies are wasting taxpayers time and money repeatedly testing spaceflight technologies that have changed relatively little over the last 40 years.
"If you're just going to build capsules that are going to go on your expendable boosters then why don't you just start doing it on Thursday?" he asked.
Rutan said the public needs to not only be inspired by NASA, but reminded that it has the ability to take chances. "The public is not excited to send money to an agency ... that doesn't have the courage to go back to the Hubble telescope." That comment was rooted in NASA's decision, so far, to not service the Hubble Space Telescope, which without new batteries and gyroscopes will likely stop working by 2008.
Stagnant space program
Rutan's overarching message was that since the end of the Apollo era, progress in human spaceflight technologies have become stagnant, with an over-reliance on technologies that are not too different today than they were from their predecessors in the 1960s. Unlike commercial air travel where growth and innovation changed the look, safety and performance of aircraft over the last 90 years, space innovation has been limited.
As for detractors that point out that the fledgling space tourism industry is only offering up sub-orbital joyrides for the wealthy, Rutan was dismissive. There is nothing wrong with doing things for fun, Rutan said: "We don't know what going to space is good for, and we don't give a damn."
The goal, Rutan said, is to inspire the next generation of young people to take up the mantles of people like von Braun, the first U.S. astronauts and the people who created the Apollo program.
Rutan vowed to do his part.
"The way I want to inspire kids is to fly to space and let them know that they can too," he said.
Anthony Duignan-Cabrera is the managing editor of SPACE.com.
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