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updated 11/8/2010 4:18:04 PM ET 2010-11-08T21:18:04

Renowned aerospace designer and leading architect of private space travel, Burt Rutan, has announced that he plans to retire next year.

Rutan is the founder of the imaginative aerospace research firm, Scaled Composites, located at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. He currently serves as Scaled's chief technical officer and following his retirement, Rutan will assume the title of founder and chairman emeritus. [ Interview with Burt Rutan ]

Rutan has worked in California's Antelope Valley for more than 45 years, initially as a flight test project engineer for the Air Force. In 1974 he founded the Rutan Aircraft Factory to develop experimental aircraft for homebuilders.

Wild ride of SpaceShipOne

In 2004, Rutan made headlines around the globe as the designer of SpaceShipOne, billed as the world's first privately-built piloted spacecraft to reach space, and as winner of the $10 million Ansari X Prize, the competition created to spur the development of affordable space tourism.

"Breakthroughs are what define our species," said Rutan. "Manned spaceflight is not only for governments to do. We proved it can be done by a small company operating with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees. The next 25 years will be a wild ride; one that history will note was done for everyone's benefit."

Rutan has amassed a long list of breakthroughs in his career, such as designing the legendary Voyager the first aircraft to circle the world nonstop without refueling. He also developed the Proteus high-altitude, long-endurance test bed aircraft.

Other recent projects include the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, which broke the Voyager's record time and enabled the first nonstop, solo flight around the world.

"Burt is known worldwide as a legendary genius in aircraft design in the aviation world. I am very fortunate and proud to have worked by his side for the past 28 years," said Scaled president Douglas Shane in a Nov. 3 statement.

The da Vinci of modern aerospace

Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic the suborbital spaceline operator of the WhiteKnightTwo/ SpaceShipTwo launch system now under development by Scaled Composites and backed by UK adventurer and businessman, Sir Richard Branson commented on Rutan's retirement announcement.

"To say something about Burt is simple he is a genius and an inspiration to a whole generation now wanting to push the frontiers of aerospace technology," Whitehorn told SPACE.com. "I don't believe Sir Richard would have shown the amazing vision he had to back the risk capital in SpaceshipTwo's early development phase if it had not been Burt and Scaled behind the X prize-winning vehicle on which our beautiful commercial vehicles are based."

Virgin Galactic has been making steady progress with its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, which has flown two glide test flights and is poised to soon begin its first rocket-powered flights.

Whitehorn added: "Burt is the Leonardo da Vinci of modern aerospace and his work will be remembered in the centuries to come."

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

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