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X-Prize winner says NASA needs another von Braun

Published by Robin on Sat Oct 23, 2004 5:13 pm
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Burt Rutan speaks at Space Center, to talk at Moontown

By SHELBY G. SPIRES, The Huntsville Times Aerospace Writer, Saturday, October 23, 2004

The man who pierced the barrier of manned commercial spaceflight thinks the problem with space travel today is not so much technology but drive and inspiration.

Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize earlier this month for making three suborbital spaceflights, is spending the weekend soaking up history in Huntsville, where the space program was born from just that drive and inspiration.

“What is really missing from NASA and America’s space program is a Wernher von Braun,” Rutan said. “He was a man that was a visionary and an engineer. We don’t have anybody like him today, and that’s why we aren’t” going forward in spaceflight.

Friday night, Rutan gave a talk and showed a film on SpaceShipOne’s development and flight to a reservation-only crowd of 250 in the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s IMAX theater. Tonight, he’ll give a similar talk at the Moontown Airport hangar.

Prior to Friday’s talk, he met with Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger and Dr. Konrad Dannenberg, both members of von Braun’s Huntsville-based German rocket team, and was shown some of von Braun’s research papers. A 1949 book of von Braun’s entitled “The Trip to Mars” was particularly interesting, he said.

“There it was in print, how to get to Mars. There was the blueprint to accomplish that goal and it was written in 1949,” Rutan said.

Rutan met Wernher von Braun in 1965 at a San Francisco ceremony when the two men were being honored with aerospace awards.

“I was very fortunate to spend 15 or 20 minutes with him. Von Braun commanded attention,” Rutan said. “When I first saw him, he seemed to be twice as tall as everybody else in that room.”

Rutan met with local reporters Friday afternoon at the Space Center. Rutan chided NASA for what he called a failed space shuttle program and said the space agency missed an opportunity to send people to Mars instead of small robots.

But Rutan said there would have to be “breakthroughs” before an orbital flight is attempted by his SpaceShipOne team.

“NASA basically failed with the space shuttle program in the late 1970s before the first launch because it couldn’t deliver on the low cost to orbit promise, and it can’t deliver on the safety,” Rutan said. “We are actually paying more, getting less and (shuttle flights) are not as safe.”

Rutan said von Braun’s 1955 Walt Disney specials that showed space travel and how to go to Mars heavily influenced him at the time. “They showed what it was like to travel in space, and what we would have to do to go to Mars. There was von Braun and Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger explaining what it would take to” travel in space.

“If that won’t fire you up about space when you are 12 years old, then nothing will,” Rutan said.

Rutan first came to Huntsville in 1998 with the specific goal of speaking with the German rocket scientists, he said. “I wanted to find out what they knew before they all died,” he said. Most of the surviving team members, including Stuhlinger and Dannenberg, are now in their 90s.

At a special award ceremony for the German rocket team in Birmingham Thursday, Dannenberg said Rutan’s achievements opened a new chapter in space history.

“It is very impressive what he has done, and I think he will be able to do so much more for space (exploration),” Dannenberg said. “I was very surprised at how he was able to launch his spacecraft with such a small rocket engine. It was very small, and yet was able to do so much.”

Dannenberg, now 92, witnessed a similar launch in Peenemuende, Germany, more than 60 years ago. He was present in October 1942 when German rocket teams launched the first A-4, or V-2, rocket; it crossed the 50-mile altitude line that experts say is the beginning of space.

SpaceShipOne traveled to the lower limits of space, about 62 miles high, three times this year – June 21, Sept. 29 and Oct. 4. The last two flights won Rutan the X-Prize, a private cash prize put up by wealthy entrepreneurs hoping to boost private space travel. The prize rules dictated that the ship had to fly twice within two weeks to show its commercial viability.

Test pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie flew SpaceShipOne. Melvill was the first civilian to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere and the first private pilot to earn astronaut wings. Binnie flew the last flight and beat a 40-year-old record set on Aug. 22, 1963, by Joseph A. Walker, who flew the X-15 test plane to an altitude record of 354,200 feet.

Tim Pickens, owner of Orion Propulsion of Madison, was an early member of Rutan’s design team, working on development of the propulsion elements.

SpaceShipOne and the White Knight carrier aircraft were built by Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites. The project was paid for in part by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who described the cost of the venture shortly before the first June flight as in “excess of $20 million.”


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