Burt Rutan may not be familiar to you, but to astronauts, pilots and aeronautical engineers – basically anyone who knows anything about airplanes – he is a legend. A maverick aeronautical engineer, Rutan has designed and built more than 40 revolutionary airplanes. Now he's set out to conquer space travel, by making it cheap enough, and safe enough, for ordinary people to make the trip.
"There will be a new industry," says Rutan. "And we are just now in a beginning. I will predict that in 12 or 15 years, there will be tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people that fly, and see that black sky. And in 10 to 12 years, kids will not just hope. But they will know that they can go to orbit in their lifetimes."
In order to prove that prediction, Rutan first had to demonstrate that his manned spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, could successfully reach space. It would be the world's first private spaceflight, and he set out to do it on June 21, 2004, in Mojave, Calif.
Mike Melvill, a 63-year-old test pilot who has worked with Rutan for 27 years, was chosen to do the flying. Was Melvill nervous? "Sure," he says. "Yeah, you know, when I walked out to the ship, put the parachute on, you got butterflies in your stomach, naturally."
Everyone had butterflies that morning, especially Rutan. SpaceShipOne had flown on test flights at high altitudes before, but this would be the first time that a pilot would attempt to fly it into space. Rutan's decades of dreaming, years of hard work - and his close friend's life – were on the line.
To carry SpaceShipOne high enough to launch into space, Rutan designed and built White Knight, a twin-engine turbo jet. It took White Knight 63 minutes to reach the launch altitude of 47,000 feet.
Once at altitude, the White Knight crew released the spacecraft, and the fierce acceleration slammed Melvill back in his seat. He put SpaceShipOne into a near vertical trajectory, but eight seconds into the flight, he ran into wind shear, and overcorrected. The ship rolled and veered off course.
Half-a-minute later, Melvill heard a loud bang. "You know, your imagination will play tricks with you at that time," he recalls. "You know, you're going extremely fast. You're kind of getting to the end of the burn. And I thought honestly something broke."
In fact, it wasn't anything serious. Thirty seconds later, as planned, the engine shut down. Still climbing like a spent bullet, Melvill hoped to gain as much altitude as possible, to reach space before the ship began falling back to Earth.
By the time SpaceShipOne reached the end of its climb, it was 22 miles off course. But it had, just barely, reached an altitude of over 62 miles, the internationally recognized boundary of space.
It was the news Rutan had been waiting for, but a moment later, there was another problem. The system Melvill needed to help position the ship after re-entry had malfunctioned. It took 12 seconds before mission control diagnosed the problem and Melvill had switched on a backup system.
Melvill paused a moment to enjoy weightlessness with a handful of M&Ms, and then it was time to return. Falling back to Earth from an altitude of 62 miles, the craft's tilting wing – a revolutionary innovation called "the feather" – caused SpaceShipOne to position itself for a relatively benign re-entry. But Melvill's ride down wasn't exactly a walk in the park.
As SpaceShipOne rammed into the atmosphere, the belly of the ship heated up to nearly 1,000 degrees. Then Melvill lowered the wing and turned it into a glider. SpaceShipOne sailed to a flawless landing before a crowd of thousands.
Melvill didn't realize he'd actually reached space. But he did, and Rutan knew his dream was finally within reach.
Rutan's SpaceShipOne was built by a company with only 130 employees, at a cost of just $25 million. He believes his success has ended the government's monopoly on space travel, and opened it up to the ordinary citizen.
But to Rutan, it's much more than a business venture. "It's a technological challenge first," he says. "And it's a dream I had when I was 12."
Back when he was 12, Rutan watched a program on space on the "Disneyland" television show. The guest was Werner Von Braun, the German engineering genius whose rockets would propel NASA astronauts to the moon.
Says Rutan, "He came to this country with a vision for people to fly in space. And here it was, two years before Sputnik, and he's on television showing his plan for people to go to Mars in wonderful graphic detail. And those were wonderful programs, because a kid the age I was, that was life-changing."
Even before that, at the age of 7, Rutan had started building model airplanes. It was in Dinuba, Calif., where he grew up with his sister Nell, and older brother Dick, who shared his passion for aviation.
"I was fascinated by putting balsa wood together and seeing how it would fly," Rutan says. "And when I started having the capability to do contests and actually win a trophy by making a better model, then I was hooked."
He's stayed hooked ever since. In 1968, he designed his first airplane, and flew it four years later. since then his planes have become known for their stunning looks, innovative design and technological sophistication. In 1986 his plane Voyager, with his brother Dick as one of the pilots, captured the country's imagination when it became the first airplane to circle the globe non-stop without refueling.
That was a feat that made Rutan famous, and won him the Presidential Citizens Medal. When accepting the honor, Rutan said, "I want to thank Ronald Reagan for providing and maintaining this environment that was devoid of government regulations that would've made this thing impossible in any other country that I can think of. I only filled out two pieces of paper for the U.S. government. I'm serious. We have an application for air-worthiness and an application for the tail number on the airplane."
This attitude toward government bureaucracy reflects the independence and self-confidence that drove Rutan to set up his own aeronautical research and design business, Scaled Composites. He started designing a spaceship nearly a decade ago, and by the year 2000, had turned his designs into models he was testing outside his office.
When Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and one of the richest men in the world, decided to pump $25 million into Scaled Composites, it was the green light Rutan's engineers had been waiting for, the kind of challenge that brought them to work for him in the first place.
Work on White Knight and SpaceShipOne started in secret three years ago. Both aircraft were custom-made from scratch by a team of 12 engineers, using layers of tough carbon fabric glued together with epoxy. The result was a body that was both strong and lightweight.
To make it possible to change the wings' configuration in flight, Rutan designed "the feather." He explains, "We had a new idea to make the re-entry very safe compared to being dangerous like it is with the X-15 or the space shuttle. This is the first airplane that can re-enter the atmosphere without having to be controlled, and yet can still glide in and land on a runway."
The re-entry idea, according to Rutan's wife Tonya, came to him in the middle of the night. "So we're both scattering, finding paper and pencil, she recalls. "And then he said, 'It's like shuttlecock. You know.' And he explained to me, you know, 'Think of a- a shuttlecock. And that's how we're gonna do it.'"
No matter how you throw or hit a badminton shuttlecock, also known as a birdie, it'll come down feathers up. This remarkable innovation was the key that turned SpaceShipOne from an engineer's dream into reality.
Since the dawn of the space age, only 437 people have flown into space. All but two of them were part of government-funded space programs, on government-funded spaceships. The other two worked for Rutan, whose privately-funded space program ended that monopoly.
But Rutan's goal is much more ambitious: "affordable space travel" in our lifetime, for ordinary people. The catalyst behind all this was a competition known as the X Prize, a $10 million challenge to build a privately-funded spacecraft then fly it into space twice in a period of two weeks. It was a contest intended to kick-start a new industry: "astro-tourism."
"At first, it wasn't important to us," Rutan says of the X Prize. "The prize was just kind of 'Oh, that's froufrou. The most important thing is for us to show that a private small company can fly a manned space flight.' Later, after we had flown the June flight, and we had reached the goal of our program, then the most important thing was to win that prize."
Wealthy space enthusiasts created the X Prize in 1986 to stimulate private investment in space.
The first of SpaceShipOne's attempts at the two flights in two weeks needed to win the prize took place on Sept. 29, 2004. It was once again piloted by Melvill. Melvill spent weeks training for the mission in a flight simulator because, unlike the space shuttle, SpaceShipOne doesn't rely on computer control. Success is in the hands of the pilot.
Can you compare it to a NASA flight? Melvill says no. "They're two different things. If you're going in the shuttle, you are in a Greyhound bus going to space. And the computer's driving the airplane. If you're going in our spaceship, you're the guy. And if you don't fly it, you're - you're not gonna come back."
The September flight put Melvill's skills and training to the test. As he was climbing out of the atmosphere, the spacecraft suddenly went into a series of rolls. Was he concerned?
"Well, I thought I could work it out," Melvill answers. "I'm very confident when I'm flying a plane. When I've got the controls in my hand, I always believed I can fix this, no matter how bad it gets."
SpaceShipOne rolled 29 times before Melvill regained control. The remainder of the flight was without incident, and the landing, flawless.
Rutan wanted to attempt the second required flight four days later, leaving the engineers little time to figure out the problem and fix it. Working 12-hour shifts, they discovered they didn't need to fix the spacecraft - just the way the pilots flew it.
For the second flight, it was test pilot Brian Binnie's turn to fly SpaceShipOne. On Oct. 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne made its second successful trip to space, capturing the $10 million prize.
Rutan also won bragging rights over the space establishment, which he frequently criticizes for being inefficient and bureaucratic.
"You know, I was wondering what they are feeling, 'they' being that other space agency," Rutan laughs. "And, uh... you know, quite frankly, I think the big guys, the Boeings, the Lockheeds, the nay-say people at Houston, I think they're looking at each other now, and saying, 'We're screwed!' Because, I'll tell you something, I have of a hell a lot bigger goal than they do!"
He's already at work, designing the details.
"The astronauts say that the most exciting experience is floating around in a space suit," says Rutan, showing off his own plans. "But I don't agree. A space suit is an awful thing. It constrains you and it has noisy fans running. Now look over here, It's quiet. And you're out here watching the world go by in what you might call a 'spiritual dome.' Well, that to me, is better than a space suit 'cause you're not constrained.
He also has a vision for a resort hotel in space, and says it all could be accomplished in the foreseeable future. Rutan believes it is the dawn of a new era.
He explains, "I think we've proven now that the small guys can build a space ship and go to space. And not only that, we've convinced a rich guy, a very rich guy, to come to this country and build a space program to take everyday people to space.
The "rich guy" is Richard Branson, the English billionaire who owns Virgin Atlantic Airways. On Sept. 27, 2004, Branson announced a $120 million deal with Rutan to build five spaceships for paying customers. Named Virgin Galactic, it will be the world's first "spaceline."
Rutan is already designing a commercial version of his spaceship and making plans to turn his research and development program into a production line for Branson. He says the first rides to space will probably cost upward of $100,000 a ticket. He thinks there's an initial market to sustain it, and that costs will eventually drop.
But before paying customers can fly, the government must grant a license, a bureaucratic process that could slow everything down. Rutan says his spaceships will be safer than the government's: "You know 4 percent of the people who have flown in space have been killed in space accidents. And no way can you have a spaceline and kill 4 percent of your passengers."
Therefore, in addition to a low cost, there must be a high safety factor.
Assuming the government gives him the green light, Rutan plans to be up and flying by 2008. He says that's just the beginning.
"The goal is affordable travel above low earth orbit. In other words," he explains, "affordable travel for us to go to the moon. Affordable travel. That means not just NASA astronauts, but thousands of people being able to go to the moon."