Headlines > News > Space travel pioneer says he reached new heights to win X Prize

Space travel pioneer says he reached new heights to win X Prize

Published by Cathleen Manville on Thu Feb 3, 2005 10:54 pm
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chabot imageBy Madeleine Mathias

Not a sound was heard as Burt Rutan, Time magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2004, took the audience into sub-orbit as they watched a film of two spaceships, built by his small firm, being tested last year.

The films captured the pilots as they fired the rockets, shooting SpaceShipOne above the Earth, and then braced their bodies against the pressures as they returned and landed in the Mojave Desert in California.

Rutan was the speaker Wednesday night at Lafayette College’s annual John and Muriel Landis Lecture at the Williams Center for the Arts.

An aero-engineering pioneer, Rutan won the $10 million X Prize last fall for privately building and launching a spaceship that can travel 62.5 miles into orbit and return safely to Earth and repeat the trip two weeks later.

Wednesday night, Rutan criticized the direction the government space programs have taken, not leading toward commercial travel.

What he set out to do in 2000, he said, was to design a program, without government help or knowledge, for multiple space flights.

He unveiled his program in April 2003 but said his goal was not just for private space flights but to address the kinds of breakthroughs in technology that would attract industrial investments.

But, he said, he and one of his supporters, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, ”thought we would do this also because it would be fun. … Something we want as a legacy, not a return investment of a business plan.”

Several times throughout his 11/2-hour talk, Rutan said a rule for success for him has been to ”have confidence in nonsense.”

He said the firm, Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., did not have a business plan at first but quickly found out that what was being done was a speculative business venture that could return a profit.

Using outlines of stages of what he called the Aviation Renaissance, Rutan touched on the beginnings of flight and how the aviation industry has changed: from horses and wagons to cars, which were displaced by prop planes and then displaced by jetliners.

He stressed the importance of innovation but said innovative cycles won’t happen when controlled by government. ”Big cycles occur only when entrepreneurs do it,” said Rutan, whose firm has created a new aeroflight design every year for almost four decades.

Rutan said that in the government’s space programs, the average age of the 435 people who have left the atmosphere in the last 43 years has been in the mid-50s. ”If something is a growing industry,” he said, ”the average age should be close to the people who are doing it now.”

Rutan said his inspirations came from the pioneers of flight, such as Wernher Von Braun, Charles Lindberg, Howard Hughes and others.

He predicted that space flights will be available to take tourists into space so they can look down on Earth and even spend time at hotels on space stations.

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