Something soon and very special is going to occur in the New Mexico desert that will change our relationship to the heavens, and rejuvenate our gene for innovation and adventure. Sometime after Christmas 2012, a slender, beautiful space craft will take off from America’s first private commercial Spaceport and transport six passengers and two pilots into sub orbit over Earth. The dream of passenger space travel has been the continuous dream of the adventure driven head of Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard Branson, and he has put his energy and money behind accomplishing safe and entrepreneurial process to bring space travel to the masses. With Paul Allen of Microsoft, Branson has brought the heft of private enterprise investment to the challenge, but the technology to make the dream not only feasible but actionable is the brilliance of one man. Burt Rutan is the genius designer behind the space crafts, and has been for thirty years, one of America’s greatest aircraft designers. For innovative technological breakthroughs one after another that have changed forever our view of flight, Burt Rutan is Ramparts People We Should Know – #17.
Burt Rutan has been an aerospace innovator his entire adult life. Born in Oregon in 1943, Rutan was always interested in flight, graduating with a degree in aerospace engineering at Cal Poly in 1965 and a flight project test engineer in the US Air Force until 1972. He has always thought out of the box, and has been enthralled with the idea that flight is a right of every individual. His job has been to try to reduce the complicated engineering of flight into a economic and efficient reality. He formed his own design company in 1982, Scaled Composites,LLC., which has been the platform for some of the most leading edge ideas in flight over the last thirty years. Refining the shape and weight of aircrafts using carbon composites, Rutan has produced brilliant concepts that have influenced craft design ever since. In 1986, Rutan’s Voyager craft, piloted by his brother Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeagar, became the first airplane to fly non-stop around the world without refueling, accomplishing the task in 9 days. So revolutionary in design, it became the first of the Rutan vehicles to receive the honor of being retired to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, hanging next to Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis and the Bell X1 craft, the first to fly faster than sound. Incentived by the AnsariX Prize, awarded to the designer who could build a craft successful of space flight twice in two weeks, lifting the equivalent of 3 passengers, and reusing 80% of the craft, Rutan produced SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 achieve the prize requirements, and made the concept of private space travel a realistic consideration. SpaceShipOne is now also in the Air and Space Museum as one of the icons of flight.
Rutan’s success with SpaceShipOne led to a flurry of activity in a new entity, the private space industry. The State of New Mexico became the sight of a developed private space port, SpacePort America, 45 miles north of Los Cruces, with capacity for both space travel and vehicle freight launch. Sir Richard Branson, inspired by Rutan’s success, successfully convinced him to partner in a program to bring private space travel to fruition, and Virgin Galactic was formed. With sufficient funds Rutan has progressed his design to SpaceShipTwo, capable of travel for six paying passengers, zero G experience, and controlled re-entry with Rutan’s breakthrough technology of wing “feathering” in which the craft is literally bent in two to reduce the speed and heat of re-entry into the dense atmosphere. The first flight should occur sometime after Christmas 2012, and it is likely that the next generation of Rutan vehicles will auger in private transportation of the nation’s astronauts to orbital missions.
Burt Rutan is a classic American success story, devising individual achievements, without the need, and more importantly, without the burden of overbearing governmental influence. His achievements are stimulating other designers to enter into the competition for the enormous potential of a private space industry. His carbon composite structures have proven strong and versatile and are the influence behind Boeing’s Dreamliner 787 aircraft that will reduce the expense and improve efficiency in routine passenger flight. Burt Rutan is a quiet genius that someday will be looked upon as the Thomas Edison of flight, and may offer America an industrial revolution in spaceflight that might finally shake it loose from its recent self induced defeatism and malaise. Burt Rutan is in the tradition of the American garage geniuses, and takes his place next to the Wright Brothers, Edison, Bell, Cray, and others who utilized the freedom and opportunity unique to America to create a better world. Burt Rutan is a worthy member of Ramparts People We Should Know – #17.