Headlines > News > Burt Rutan, in his own words

Burt Rutan, in his own words

Published by Robin on Mon Oct 25, 2004 3:03 pm
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By Jeff Foust, The Space Review, Monday, October 25, 2004

On October 9th, just five days after Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize, the Space Frontier Foundation gave the company its “Vision to Reality Award” during the organization’s annual conference on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. While Scaled technically won the award for SpaceShipOne’s pre-X Prize suborbital flight on June 21, the award was also a celebration of the two recent X Prize flights.

Scaled Composites founder and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan was scheduled to appear to accept the award, but there was speculation and rumors that, in the flurry of events after winning the prize, he might not attend. Conference organizers advised the media at one point that, while Rutan would attend, he would not give any interviews to the media. The awards ceremony might turn out to be a non-event.

However, Rutan did show up and, after providing a few perfunctory remarks when receiving the award, returned to the podium at the end of the awards banquet to talk some more. And more. And more. Leaning against the podium with a microphone in hand, Rutan, wearing jeans and a leather jacket, spoke extemporaneously for over an hour and 45 minutes, talking about all aspects of the Tier One program and related subjects, showing videos from the flights, and engaging in an extended question-and-answer session with the audience. Below are edited excerpts of portions of Rutan’s talk.

On his college education and meeting Wernher von Braun:

I graduated from college at a time that you would think would compel me to go into the space program. It was 1965, halfway between Yuri Gagarin and our first man landing on the Moon, and you would think that anyone getting out of aerospace, or aeronautical engineering in those days—they hadn’t changed the name of the degree yet—you would think that they would be sucked up into the space program. Especially since in 1964 I was selected by my school to attend something called the Space Technology Summer Institute at Caltech. A student from each of about 20 schools showed up and spent the summer at Caltech to learn about space technology. The reason was that they wanted people who hadn’t graduated yet to excited by that and go into the space program. I was probably the only one from that group who didn’t go into the space program.
If I had never seen a picture of von Braun, didn’t know what he looked like, I could still walk into the room and immediately identify him. It seemed like he was not one of us.

In 1965, when I was accepting an AIAA award in San Francisco for the national student design competition, I had a wonderful opportunity to meet Wernher von Braun. It was at a cocktail party, and we were going to get the award in an hour, and the number of people in the room was about the same as in this center area here [gesturing to section of banquet tables]. I remember that very distinctly because if I had never seen a picture of von Braun, didn’t know what he looked like, I could still walk into the room and immediately identify him. It seemed like he was not one of us.

The origins of SpaceShipOne:

Over the last 25 years it has become increasingly, increasingly obvious that the kids who dream—and I consider myself still a kid—that they can go up and see these views [of Earth from space] have diminishing hope, diminishing dreams. I look at all those little kids who are excited about going to space and who want to be an astronaut: there are a lot of them still out there, but you look at them and think, “What am I going to tell them? What are his chances?”

I decided back in ’93 or ’94, around in there, that given the difference between the rag-wing little airplanes that were around at EAA [Experimental Aircraft Association] in 1953 when it was formed and a pressurized Boomerang [airplane], maybe there’s not that much difference between a Boomerang and a spaceplane. And I said so, at Oshkosh, in 1996-7: maybe there’s not that much difference. I found out later that I was wrong. The thing is that I had the courage to say, listen, I’m going to give it a try, I’m going to go out and do it.

I finally woke up one morning and realized, “For God’s sake, Burt, you’ve done about 40 airplanes, we’ve got to do this with an airplane somehow.”

When [Peter] Diamandis came along in 1996 and said that he’s going to try his best to raise $10 million to put up a prize for something I wanted to do anyway, I changed right then my efforts from a single-place vehicle to a three-place vehicle. I recognized that if there was going to be space tourism so that we can all fly that we have to make these vehicles extremely robust and safe compared to any other manned spacecraft. Now certainly that enormous step towards making them safe is to not go to orbit first but to fly the Alan Shepard and Joe Walker flights. With suborbital you get about the same view and you get the experience of weightlessness. I tried to convince myself that this was good enough as a first effort.

The early design of SpaceShipOne:

The only fatal accident in the X-15 was related to flight controls during the reentry, and I pledged myself to solve that problem, to make something robust for reentry in any kind of flight control failure. That initially drove me to a capsule with feathers, very much like a shuttlecock, to hold a specific g-level. I was going to use parachute recovery and helicopter airborne pickup. I identified that as the easiest thing I could do first, and I thought it would be extremely robust.

After more study it was clear that while parachutes are okay for certain things, they’re not okay for space tourism. Not just because of their reliability, but because they tend to drift a lot, and you can’t make the experience what it ought to be. I finally woke up one morning and realized, “For God’s sake, Burt, you’ve done about 40 airplanes, we’ve got to do this with an airplane somehow.”

I had problems developing a configuration that had good subsonic flying qualities, like a light plane, yet I had to have an airplane that when supersonic that would trim to an extremely high drag so I could have a low ballistic coefficient. I knew I could do that if I could get it to trim at extremely high angles of attack. I tried all kinds of things, and finally I came up with the feathered configuration—the word “feathered” was just a carryover from back when we had feathers on my earlier designs. As soon as that was shown in supersonic CFD [computational fluid dynamics] to do the trick, then I knew I had an opportunity to do what I now call “carefree” reentry. I knew when I made that work that it was enormous, huge, in terms of what it would mean for space tourism.

How SpaceDev beat out Environmental Aeroscience Corporation (eAc) for the SpaceShipOne hybrid rocket motor contract:

When I knew in my heart that this thing would work, I got a hold of Paul Allen and laid it all out, 20 tasks, and said that I think it will cost this much, and think it will take this long, and immediately he said, “Let’s go.”

That was a tough decision to make. Actually, it was an easy decision to pick eAc [in the first phase of the competition]; it was a much tougher decision to pick SpaceDev. But, I think I made pretty good choices, because both of these motors at the downselect performed better Isp [specific impulse] and total impulse that I had asked for. I concluded that both were safe motors to run, and I would have been happy to go with either one. We had just a tad more performance, a couple of percent, with SpaceDev, they had surprisingly lower cost, and they had an advantage in the weight of their components. SpaceDev ended up winning all of those by just a little bit, so we went with them with the motor to fly. Both of these wanted to get into that phase of the program. They were delighted to go out there and be able to run an 8-900 pound-second motor, and they both really badly wanted to fly. In fact, we see some advantages in the way eAc did it that may move us back in that direction for space tourism.

How Paul Allen got involved:

[Early in the design phase of SpaceShipOne] I had bounced ideas back and forth with Paul Allen. I was not asking him for money for this; I was talking with him in those days more on telecommunications and the Proteus [airplane] than I was spaceships. I didn’t know at that time that he was a space nut. I found out later that he absolutely is.

When I knew in my heart that this thing would work, I got a hold of Paul Allen and laid it all out, 20 tasks, and said that I think it will cost this much, and think it will take this long, and immediately he said, “Let’s go.”

page 2: how to spend other people’s money >>

Rutan compares the funding and success his venture enjoyed versus the problems of previous efforts like the DC-X and Roton:

The best advice I can give someone is don’t go out and spend someone else’s money—and I don’t care if it’s a billionaire’s money or NASA’s money—but if they’re not willing to give you the money to reach a significant and useful goal, then don’t take their money, because they are not committed to you. They don’t have the confidence in you for doing something useful. What was flown with DC-X was not useful technically at all, zero, towards the problems of building a single stage to orbit, land-on-a-plume vehicle. So here’s the thing: why did they even start? Another rule I think you ought to use if you’re out there doing this: for crying out loud, don’t use someone else’s money unless you yourself, with your confidence and your passion and your gut, would spend your own money if you had the money.

Why SpaceShipOne rolled during its first X Prize flight on Wednesday, September 29:

I want to tell you we were not concerned about safety on this. We were concerned that we did get this departure, and it is a departure, and it wasn’t from wind shear. We identified on Wednesday’s flight by analyzing our data very carefully that when we get to zero and then negative angle of attack, we lose directional stability. Now, we had never been at Mach 2.7 and negative angle of attack before; that’s kind of a hard piece of the envelope to open up in your glide tests. It has very low directional stability—SpaceShipTwo has got to have better high-Mach directional stability by a bunch—but at low angle of attack it gets worse.
Don’t use someone else’s money unless you yourself, with your confidence and your passion and your gut, would spend your own money if you had the money.

Mike [Melvill] got a little active on the rudders and got out of phase on the ailerons. He got some sideslip and it coupled, like SpaceShipOne likes to do—it’s got a lot of dihedral effect—it coupled into a high roll rate. By the time we had a roll or two, we had a Q [dynamic pressure] of almost nothing. So these 29 and a half rolls that you see aren’t aerodynamic rolls, they are more like in-space dynamic rolls, that is, once it’s turning it just keeps rolling. We knew the ship was not in danger because we were at really low Q and Q was coming down.

I want to explain another thing: why it took us so long to damp out those rolls. We have two different principal axes, inertia wise, depending on whether the feather is up or down. When the feather is up the principal axis tilts. We decided that the best thing on feather is as soon as you fly out of the atmosphere to put the feather up and leave it up while you’re in space. It took him that long to get out of the atmosphere entirely and then to put the feather up, and then he started to work on the roll rate [using the RCS thrusters]. He did get it straightened out to very low roll rates before he got to apogee.

Why certification of suborbital vehicles is a good thing:

You have to have certification, and it’s the cheapest thing you ever buy. First of all, it costs you between nine and sixteen percent more because the FAA is there. Forget these guys who say certification makes it ten times as expensive. I know what it takes. I asked Beechcraft when they were done certifying the structure on the Starship [aircraft], which is a tough thing to do. I asked them what if there was no FAA, what if you, Beechcraft, did your testing only for your ethics. Now your ethics mean that it’s not a good thing to kill our customers. What did certification really cost you? They said. “That’s a really good question, and we think we have the data for a very good answer.” They huddled and came back with a report for me about a week later. That report showed me every test, every test article, and every report that the FAA insisted that they do that they didn’t think be done. They took everything that was in dispute—in other words, I wouldn’t have done that but the FAA made me do it—and it came out to be nine percent.

Without that [certification] you can’t survive as an industry: you can’t survive the first accident, and you can’t insure. So you got to have government certification that protects passengers.

Certification is not expensive because of the FAA. And I’ll tell you something, it’s the very best thing you can buy when you have an accident and somebody gets killed. The plaintiff’s attorney’s job is to convince that non-technical jury that you did a sloppy job, that you didn’t do enough for his safety. The very best thing you can do is say that there are specific government certification requirements and I met every one of them, and you even get to bring the government in to certify to the jury that you passed all of the safety requirements. Without that you can’t survive as an industry: you can’t survive the first accident, and you can’t insure. So you got to have government certification that protects passengers.

What’s next after SpaceShipOne:

I put out there that before I die I want to see affordable travel to the Moon, that’s essentially where I’m going. What I mean by affordable is not what Houston talks about affordable; I’m talking about where a third of the people in this room can afford to go to the Moon when I finally kick off. That’s my vision.

Now, when you do that, you can draw a schedule back to show this above low Earth orbit stuff, and this low orbit stuff, and this suborbital stuff. Tier One is suborbital manned spaceflight, Tier Two is low Earth orbit manned spaceflight, and Tier Three is what we do above low Earth orbit, and it does have to start very soon after we have affordable Earth orbit stuff. I drew a schedule for all of that about three and a half months ago, and I decided what had to happen at every point to get to that. As of the 27th of September, I’m already six months ahead three months into the schedule. I did not think that there would be a major investment by a major guy who can and will do it. Can anyone here think of a better guy that will actually go out and build a spaceline [than Richard Branson]? I couldn’t.

Can anyone here think of a better guy that will actually go out and build a spaceline [than Richard Branson]? I couldn’t.

I could move directly on to orbital ops from a research standpoint, but I decided that since I didn’t seem to have a real close competitor to the X Prize, that maybe I ought to stay with suborbital and make damn sure that there’s a successful, certified, safe system out there flying many passengers every day suborbitally before I lose interest in it and go on to orbital. And that’s what I’m going to do. Is it going to be tough? Yeah, there’s some tough things. Are the regulatory issues going to be tough? Yeah. But I’m not as scared of that program that is in front of me right now as I was scared of the SpaceShipOne program that was in front of me in 2001.

I’ve never certified a light plane or an airliner, but it looks like I’m going to be the first one to do a spaceliner, and I’m just so proud of that.


Jeff Foust (jeff@thespacereview.com) is the editor and publisher of The Space Review. He also operates the Spacetoday.net web site and the Space Politics weblog. Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not represent the official positions of any organization or company, including the Futron Corporation, the author’s employer.

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