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Cal Poly honors Burt Rutan

Published by Robin on Sun Sep 18, 2005 5:40 pm
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Aviation designer speaks to students at alma mater

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Saturday, September 17, 2005.
By ALLISON GATLIN, Valley Press Staff Writer

SAN LUIS OBISPO – The nation’s youth need something new and exciting to inspire them to be the creative geniuses of tomorrow, Burt Rutan believes.
Rutan, arguably one of today’s most creative geniuses, thinks commercial manned spaceflight is the answer to that challenge.

Rutan outlined his vision for the future of personal space travel for the masses Friday at his alma mater, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

The noted aviation designer — seen by many as responsible for launching a new era in spaceflight with his SpaceShipOne spacecraft — was honored by the university during its annual Fall Convocation heralding the start of the new academic year.

Rutan graduated from Cal Poly 40 years ago with a degree in aeronautical engineering. In 1987, he was awarded the university’s first honorary doctor of science degree.

Friday, he was presented with the university’s President’s Medal of Excellence in recognition of his lifetime contributions to aerospace engineering. The honor has been awarded to just three other people in the school’s more than 100-year history.

“As a pioneer in aviation and an entrepreneur who exemplifies the Cal Poly learn-by-doing philosophy, Burt Rutan has set an important example for scientists, engineers and inventors to be bold in their scientific and technological innovation efforts,” Cal Poly President Warren J. Baker said.

“Throughout his distinguished career, (Rutan) has demonstrated the extraordinary difference that a creative spirit, driven by curiosity, can make to advance humankind.”

SpaceShipOne, designed by Rutan and built at his Mojave-based Scaled Composites, captured the world’s imagination and the $10 million Ansari X Prize last year as the first privately funded, manned space program.

The stubby spacecraft’s three successful forays into suborbital space helped launch a new industry offering brief spaceflights for paying tourists.

As such, the endeavors of a small company promising “space for the rest of us” is already working to inspire a new generation of designers and engineers, Rutan said.

That was made apparent during SpaceShipOne’s immensely popular appearance at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual convention in Oshkosh, Wis., in July.

Rutan has attended the event for the past 34 years, often bringing his latest creation. This year drew by far the biggest response he has seen.

“This was the first year we were just surrounded by people wanting autographs (from the SpaceShipOne team) all the time, like rock stars,” he said. “There was an enormous amount of excitement.”

“I am more positive now than last year there is enormous pent-up demand” for private space travel, he said.

It was especially successful in capturing the interest of children in the 3- to 14-year-old age range, whom Rutan sees as most important for inspiring future innovators.

The SpaceShipOne display was open to children each day to allow them to reach up and touch the spacecraft, to literally feel history. Families would come up to the rope line surrounding the aircraft to ask when the display would be open, and children would start bawling if they found out they wouldn’t be able to make the time slot, Rutan said, adding that they usually were allowed a special visit.

Rutan believes that children will be inspired by the thought that they, too, will actually be able to fly in space someday, something possible with a thriving commercial space industry carrying thousands of passengers each year.

“Reality drives kids,” he said.

Rutan’s own inspiration came from his childhood during the early days of the jet age. He recalled seeing a formation of B-36 bombers fly over when he was in his back yard with a model airplane.

“Those things have a wonderful rumble. If they flew over your house right now, you’d be mesmerized,” he said. “I think right then I decided what I wanted to do.”

Television shows on which rocket scientist Werner von Braun and Walt Disney spoke about traveling to Mars were another source of inspiration.

“That kind of excitement we don’t have today,” he said.

Rutan’s adolescent activities and interests were driven by the environment of aviation progress at that time.

“I wasn’t into jalopies and girls and rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “I was into competing with model airplanes.”

Although airplanes were his first passion, spaceflight was never far from the picture in Rutan’s development. He recalled hearing radio reports of Alan Shepherd’s spaceflight – the first for an American – while driving to Cal Poly for the first time.

When Rutan graduated in 1965, most of his classmates joined the still-young space program, working toward a moon landing. Rutan instead went into flight test of airplanes at Edwards Air Force Base, which he later left to pursue his dreams of designing aircraft of his own.

“I thought I could make a bigger difference with airplanes,” he told a gathering of engineering students at the university Friday.

After decades of success with his airplane designs, Rutan’s personal goal of traveling in space had become a passion.

The designer’s advice to engineering students interested in following in his footsteps was to find a similar passion, then find a job that fulfills it.

The emerging space travel industry will provide a growing number of opportunities for today’s students, he said.

“There’s a big industry out there,” Rutan told students. “It’s going to be up to you guys to go up there and have as much fun as we did last year.”

Some of those opportunities exist at Scaled Composites, which is increasing its work force as it develops SpaceShipTwo for commercial use.

Rutan has recruited employees from his alma mater’s ranks in the past, partly due to the school’s emphasis on practical skills in addition to theory.

“That’s the key to our success – people who know how to build things. I won’t let someone design something that he can’t build,” Rutan said.

Once, Rutan persuaded a student to come to Scaled Composites before he even finished his degree at Cal Poly. Pete Siebold went on to design the SpaceShipOne simulator and avionics, as well as pilot the craft during test flights. He later returned to the university to complete his degree work.

“We hire based on ‘fire in the eyes,’ ” Rutan said. Rather than grades, “I look at a person’s passion.”

Commenting on the four Scaled employees hired out of Cal Poly, Rutan told the gathered students, “I’d like to hire four more today if I can. We need more fire-breathers.”


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