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Space pioneer Rutan offers down-to-earth engineering advice

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Thu Dec 2, 2004 4:19 pm
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chabot imageedn.com Margery Conner: What lessons can an electronic design engineer learn from an aerodynamicist?
Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne earned the $10 million X-Prize for privately financed spaceflight a few weeks ago,
spoke last night in San Jose at an event that focused on commercial spaceflight and was sponsored in part by Mentor Graphics.

Granted, Rutan has an off-the-scale cool factor.

But do his methods apply to engineers who aspire to do great things in other engineering disciplines?
Most definitely yes.

These six universal themes emerged from Rutan’s talk:

  1. Work with a small group. Rutan designed, built, and tested not only SpaceShipOne, which carried its pilot into space twice on two separate trips less than a week apart, but also the White Knight, the mothership that carried SpaceShipOne aloft and launched it. At the height of its effort, the group numbered 35, but was usually about 20. Compare this with the size of NASA.
  2. How do you assemble a highly-capable group of technologists? Rutan’s criteria is simple: “Choose them for the fire in their eyes, not their grades.”
  3. A risk-averse organization stifles innovation. “The early days of aviation were not risk averse,” Rutan pointed out. The period from 1909 to 1912, which Rutan sees as a golden age in the advancement of aviation, saw the number of private pilots and airplanes soar, yet the safety record of 3.5% fatalities for that era compares favorably with the 4.2% record of national governments in the space program (US and Russia combined).
  4. “You have to be willing to work on speculation.” Rutan started his talk by asking for a show of hands: “How many people here want to leave the atmosphere?” He believes space tourism will be a lucrative industry within 10 years, and he’s willing to bet his company on it.
  5. Avoid government “support.” Aviation boomed initially without government support. A whole generation of young aviators-to-be saw what a couple of bicycle-mechanic brothers from Dayton, Ohio, could accomplish and said to themselves, “I can do that, too.”
  6. Pay attention to the next generation. Or as Rutan puts it, “We can’t afford to bore our children.” Rutan notes that most of the great airplane designers of the 20th century were children and teens in that golden period from 1908 to 1912, when private individuals made great strides in aviation.

Although this author sat on her hands when Rutan asked for volunteers to leave the atmosphere, and though one may or may not agree with his vision of universal space travel, he’s shown a genius for making the seemingly impossible happen. And that can inspire us all.

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