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Sky\'s the limit for space travel

Published by Robin on Wed Dec 1, 2004 7:22 pm
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chabot imageStudents told of road to first commercial rocket
By Lisa M. Krieger, Mercury News, Wed, Dec. 01, 2004

Sending the first commercial rocket soaring into space isn’t so hard, aircraft designer Burt Rutan told a classroom of San Jose State University engineering students Tuesday.

But dealing with all the earthly regulations — now, that’s tough.

“The guys who wrote the laws never built anything,” scoffed Rutan, who built the Ansari X Prize winner SpaceShipOne. The ship, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, took two 64-mile-high flights beyond the Earth’s atmosphere to win the prize.

“By the time NASA finally gets back to the moon, we’ll have resort hotels there,” he said.

Relaxed and casual, the tanned and denim-clad Rutan has a $100 million contract with British billionaire Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways to build five new vehicles for a commercial passenger space line.

To a rapt audience of young astronaut wannabes, he narrated video footage of one of the rocket’s landmark trips, making it sound as complicated as a trip to the grocery store.

“The pilot rolled 29 times but you don’t really feel it, ’cause your head’s in the center of the rotation,” said Rutan. “And you don’t see it, because where you’re looking out, it’s all black,” he said. “It’s kind of weird.”

As the vehicle accelerated, he explained: “See, the pilot’s head is shaking pretty good. That’s ’cause he’s at 5 1/2 G’s,” Rutan said, referring to the force of gravity. “You can see the mask over his face shaking around.”

He takes pride in the design. The landing gear, for instance, “is real simple. You can really screw up the trajectory and still get home.”

Safety remains a big issue. “But it’s not a good time to kill a pilot, when the whole world’s watching,” he said.

Costs have to be brought down. The ultimate goal is space tourism trips in the $10,000 to $15,000 price range.

Rutan’s visit to San Jose was sponsored by Mentor Graphics Foundation, organized by the Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy. Later Tuesday night, Rutan was scheduled to speak at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.

The technical problems can be solved, Rutan told the students.

But a host of regulatory issues need to be simplified before the dream of commercial manned spaceflight can become a reality.

“The regulations we were under were an absolute disaster,” he said.

“I had to scour the desert for tortoises” and file a pre-flight environmental impact report, he said. “We almost flew with two little tortoises. But I decided against it, ’cause some tree-huggers would have screamed so loud.”

“The rules are silly worthless garbage — but they’re so inappropriate that they’ll be easy to change,” he added, brightly.

Despite the bureaucracies, he urged the youngsters to join the field.

“This is something we can do,” he said. “It isn’t just the government who gets to do this. This is going to happen so fast you won’t believe it.”

He predicts a future where beyond the Earth’s atmosphere are “concert halls, theaters-in-the-sphere and rock concerts where everyone can float around.”

His recipe for innovation: “You get a few folks who are real smart. You put them in an environment where it’s all right to take risks and make decisions without having to convince the government first. This creates an environment that is productive and efficient.”

He counseled the students to get out of the classroom and start building things.

“You shouldn’t be allowed to design something that you can’t go out to the shop and make it yourself,” he said. “Because if you screw up, you’ll be the one up on the computer that night trying to fix it.”

In job applicants, “I look for the fire in your eyes and your hobbies. Forget the liberal stuff they feed you in those other classrooms. What you do in your design and construction — your ability to experiment and work on projects — that’s what matters.

“There’s going to be creativity and competition,” he said. “In 10 to 15 years, every kid will know that he or she can go into orbit in their lifetime. They won’t dream it, they’ll know it.”

The students left the class with a new sense of invigoration, they said. “We’re really excited,” said Jackeline Carpio, 22, a mechanical engineering and aerospace major.

“What he’s doing opens doors,” said Amisha Patel, 24, also studying aeroengineering. “It’s great to hear what you can do.”

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at lkrieger@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5565.

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