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Rocket man, Burt Rutan

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Fri Jun 3, 2005 10:55 am
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By Gordon Smith: For Burt Rutan, innovation is rocket science. The Californian engineer, aviator and entrepreneur runs a small company, Scaled Composites, that has been instrumental in making several breakthroughs that look set to lead to the real and tantalising possibility of mass-market manned space travel.

To achieve what is literally a far-out idea, he has led and motivated a team of creative people and so is well placed to know what it means to complete real innovation. Appropriately, he spoke about this very subject last month at the Innovation Island II conference held in Dublin. Rutan, now aged 62, began his presentation by observing the road to new ideas is often beset with obstacles. “Whenever there’s a breakthrough, you can go back and find a consensus that said ‘That’s nonsense’,” he said.

The man who designed Voyager, the first aircraft to fly around the world non-stop without refuelling, clearly enjoys his role as a maverick. He can’t resist a sly dig at NASA, purposely mispronouncing the word as ‘naysay’. Commenting on the video footage of SpaceShipOne, he quips: “See the bored-looking people in the background? They’re from the FAA [Federal Aviation Authority]”. He continues his theme by stressing governments do not innovate and new ideas come from the private sector and from entrepreneurs. “Breakthroughs are something unexpected that bring significant results. These are the things that define us.”

The reasons to innovate may not always come from the loftiest motives, according to Rutan, who identifies survival from threats as a more likely spur. In the Sixties, when Russia beat the US to put the first man in space, it was the trigger for the space race. “It was what we needed to come back from the embarrassment of a perceived defeat,” he said. The lessons are universal and no one whose organisation has ever seen rough times could fail to understand the significance of Rutan’s next remark. “Breakthroughs don’t tend to happen when you have mediocrity but when you have a crisis; we essentially get creative when we’re threatened. We went to the moon in bad times.”

Rutan turned to the basis for innovation, asking rhetorically: “What is research? It’s where half the people you gather together to do it think: ‘That’s impossible’. You’re not going to get a breakthrough if everyone thinks it can be done.” Rutan quoted the rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, one of his own heroes, who said: “Basic research is what I am doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.” Click here to read the full article.

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