Wearing a black leather jacket and 19th-century mutton-chop sideburns in his first-ever appearance before a congressional committee, Burt Rutan sketched a futuristic vision for the space tourism industry that was invigorated by the flights of his SpaceShipOne over California's Mojave Desert last October to capture a $10 million prize.
Rutan has a deal with Virgin Galactic, part of the Britain's Virgin Group, to build five spaceships that will blast paying customers into space as early as 2008. Tickets are $200,000 each, and 29,000 people have already signed up, Virgin Galactic says.
Earlier this year, the inventors and moguls of the infant space tourism industry appeared before a congressional panel and predicted despite the likelihood that there will be along the way as the industry grows.
But Rutan told the House of Representatives Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics that his vision goes far beyond that. He said that once outer-space travel moves beyond risky and becomes relatively safe, which he described as possible but not yet within reach, tens of thousands of paying customers will go into space, opening scientific and educational frontiers along the way.
Rutan said at the hearing, and in a later interview, that he's gotten inquiries from United Arab Emirates and other countries about his spacecraft, but he's said no for now because of the distractions and complications such deals would entail.
"I am not embarrassed that the first decade of commercial space flight will be for nothing but fun," Rutan said. "I am confident that when there's 50,000 people that have left the atmosphere, and when there's a lot of capital and investment in it because it's profitable, we'll get out there and we'll solve the reasons to make it also safe to go into orbit and go to the moon and we will also find out new uses for it.
"There will be somebody that comes along and invents an Internet-like reason for changing this fun into something that is long-lasting and significant for our nation," Rutan said.
Rutan has made a career of innovation in flight. Besides last year's first privately funded manned space flight, he developed an airplane that made the first nonstop, unrefueled flight around the world, in 1986, and designed the GlobalFlyer plane that carried millionaire Steve Fossett around the world last month.
In the aftermath of SpaceShipOne's flights last year, Congress passed legislation to regulate space tourism for the first time. It authorized the Federal Aviation Administration to issue permits allowing private operators to carry paying passengers into space. Over objections of Democrats who demanded more safety rules, the law barred the FAA from issuing safety regulations for passengers and crew for eight years.
Rutan and Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said the industry can develop best without government interference. Rutan said the government must at some point require testing to prove passenger safety to improve operators' chances of getting insurance.
He said that the proper safety goal is to aim higher than the record achieved during the first years of commercial airline service, in 1927 and 1928, when there was one fatality per 5,500 flights.
For now, it appears only Virgin Galactic and one other company are taking reservations for space travel. Rutan predicted a robust marketplace in which different operators compete and many fail, as in the early years of commercial aviation.
Whitehorn said that while the first space tourists will pay $200,000 each, his company expects ticket prices to drop to $25,000 to $30,000 within several years.
"We are working very hard to ensure this will be extremely attractive to the public," said Rutan, 61, of Mojave, Calif. "I think this will be a much, much bigger market than anyone imagines."
By Erica Werner