Burt Rutan: Building The People's Spaceship

DENVER, Colo. -- Stand by for dramatic and radical change in the emerging passenger space travel industry--but don't count on NASA or major aerospace service providers to propel the public into space anytime soon.

Since the early 1970s, NASA seems to mean No Adult Supervision Apparent. The unaffordable space shuttle, for example, is a failure in trying to reduce cost for accessing Earth orbit. Moreover, companies out to build the space agency's replacement for the shuttle -- the Crew Exploration Vehicle -- are doing so under an arrangement that cripples innovation, creativity, and the chance for breakthroughs.

Thus says Burt Rutan, the private airplane and spacecraft designer, who is anything but shy when it comes to telling the world where he thinks the United States - and NASA in particular, has gone wrong since the heyday of human spaceflight.

Rutan, a private rocket designer, is the leader of the privately-backed team that flew three suborbital flights last year of the piloted SpaceShipOne -- is now busily working on but secretive about the details of a new passenger-carrying spaceliner that is coming together at his company Scaled Composites in Mojave, CA.

Rutan made several appearances here Nov. 12, including his first stop which was to help judge a student spaceship and spaceport design competition hosted by the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum and the Department of Aerospace at Metropolitan State College. Dozens of student teams vied for awards under the watchful eye of event partner, Space Voyage Educational Adventures America of Lakewood, Colorado.

People payloads

NASA's ability to put humans into space has been fueled by taxpayer dollars. But the government has left behind at the launch pad the most important payloads--the taxpaying public, Rutan said.

"In fact, it's more dangerous to fly in space in America now than it was earlier. It certainly is more expensive...more difficult," Rutan said. "We've been relying on our taxpayer-funded research organization, Na Say, excuse me, NASA."

The true role for NASA, Rutan said, should be doing the research so that American industry can compete favorably with the rest of the world. That was the approach taken by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to the modern day NASA, he noted.

Out of the atmosphere: safely and affordably

Rutan said that he and his Scaled Composites workers have solved the generic, basic safety issues of suborbital manned spaceflight.

In a succession of flights last year, SpaceShipOne -- and its carrier craft, the White Knight that hauls the rocket plane to high-altitude for release -- the Scaled Composites team worked on key technical issues. By solving them, Rutan is confident that flying the public out of the atmosphere can be done safely and affordably.

"We can show that we can move right into an industry to fly the public at the level of safety that the early airliners had," Rutan said. Even in that time period, he said, airlines were operating 100 times safer than all of government manned spaceflight.

Rutan says the breakthroughs are simple solutions and what can be operated at high-reliability.,

One breakthrough he is determined to achieve is getting the entrepreneurial investors, free-spirited tinkerers--the "little guys"--to understand that they have it within their capabilities to enable public suborbital travel. They need only understand one key fact, he says: "I can do this."

Rutan told a largely student audience that they were not risk averse. "You're going to be more creative, more innovative, and have a lot more ability to stumble into a big breakthrough," he said.

Tight-lipped about schedule

In a special fund-raising gala, the aerospace designer also received the Spreading Wings Award for 2005 from the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.

Rutan informed the audience there that he was mad that "the Russians are beating America as capitalists", pointing to recent Soyuz flights boosting paying passengers up to the International Space Station.

Rutan offered some clues as to what progress is being made on building SpaceShipTwo, the commercial version of his space plane that will take tourists into space.

However, the rebel designer remains tight-lipped about schedule. The mega-launching plane, a big spaceship that carries eight to ten people, and a new rocket motor--all these have to be developed, certified, and then put into production, Rutan said.

Experience optimized

"I believe that after it [SpaceShipTwo] flies 10 or 12 years, that type [of spaceliner] will fly about 100,000 people outside the atmosphere," Rutan said.

"The ship that we're developing in our shop right now in Mojave will have a very large cabin," Rutan explained. A passenger can stand up in that compartment and float up to the ceiling...put their hands out and tumble.

"The windows will have handles on them. If you want to look outside, you're going to have to go to a window and pull your nose up against it and just look," Rutan said. "You're not going to be strapped into seats in a small thing with little windows...if you do that, that spaceliner will not sell the tickets."

SpaceShipTwo will be "experience optimized," Rutan said. The suborbital craft will cruise high above Earth, he added, giving passengers a weightless experience and some seven or eight minutes of black sky viewing.

Flight paths of his commercial spaceship can include over-the-ocean travel, gliding above California to a desert landing, Rutan said. "We applaud when you stop on the runway. The NASA folk applaud when they clear the tower on takeoff," he said.

Wanted: spaceship builders

Rutan told SPACE.com that he needs to double the size of Scaled Composites--now some 150 people--to be able to properly handle a roster of projects, including his commercial spaceliner activity.

"We have a lot of openings for people...not just engineers, but people that can help us build research spaceships and production spaceships," Rutan explained.

Rutan said that his company is soon to start aggressively looking for enthusiastic young people that want to learn how to build spaceships, canvassing the colleges for students that have "fire in their eyes."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.