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Spaceship guru roasts his rivals

Speaking as a self-described humorist, spaceship builder Burt Rutan delivers some zingers aimed at virtually everyone else in the space business, from NASA on down.
Burt Rutan, Rusty Schweickart
Spaceship designer Burt Rutan, right, listens to Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart after a luncheon address at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles on Thursday.Reed Saxon / AP

LOS ANGELES — X Prize winner Burt Rutan took humorous aim at virtually everyone else in the space business Thursday, throwing zingers at NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and his competitors in the nascent space tourism industry — many of whom were in the audience.

The designer of the first private-sector rocket plane to reach outer space drew laughter — and a few winces — during a luncheon address here at the International Space Development Conference. The general tone of the talk was that of a celebrity roast, with the celebrity doing all the roasting.

Rutan, 63, also laid out some ambitious personal goals, saying he wanted "to go to the moon in my lifetime" and also "see my grandchildren go to the more interesting moons of Jupiter and Saturn. However, he and his partners at Virgin Galactic also seemed to backtrack somewhat from their shorter-term ambitions for space tourism flights.

For years, Rutan has taken NASA to task for its lack of innovation, and Thursday's talk was no different. He took particular aim at NASA's plan to go to the moon with a spaceflight system that has been characterized as "Apollo on steroids" — using technologies that were pioneered over the past 40 years.

"I believe that program, as taxpayer-funded research, makes absolutely no sense," he said. "And the reason I believe that is that they're forcing the program to be done with technology that we already know works, and are not creating an environment where it is possible to make a breakthrough."

He said the Apollo-based program guarantees "that you are not going to learn anything new here that is useful for you to go on to the other moons."

He wondered whether NASA's new space vision was "really a training program" for young engineers who were not familiar with the achievements of the Apollo era. "You could also describe it possibly as archaeology," he quipped.

In contrast, he held up his own work on SpaceShipOne, the privately funded spacecraft that won the $10 million X Prize in 2004; and the follow-up project for Virgin Galactic, which involves building a fleet of scaled-up "SpaceShipTwos" for suborbital tourist flights. For SpaceShipOne, Rutan developed a "carefree re-entry" design that allows the plane to right itself even if it's tumbling during descent — and also pioneered the use of lightweight composite materials.

Rutan said he was able to innovate on SpaceShipOne in part because his financial backer, software billionaire Paul Allen, left virtually all technical details of the project to Rutan's team at Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites. He had even higher praise for his current backer, British billionaire Richard Branson.

He noted that under U.S. technology-transfer regulations, he was barred from sharing any technical data with Branson or Virgin Galactic's British executives — and then he added with a comic's timing: "I found out that's even better."

In the past, Virgin Galactic has said commercial flights could start in late 2008 or 2009, at roughly $200,000 a seat. But during a Thursday afternoon talk, Virgin Galactic's vice president of operations, Alex Tai, told conference attendees that the flight schedule would not be set until his company and Rutan were satisfied that the SpaceShipTwo rocket planes were safe.

"I'm not going to tell you exactly when they're going to begin operating," he said.

Other suborbital spaceflight companies have promised to begin flights as early as next year — even though they have not yet sent any test vehicles to outer space, as Rutan's team has.

Rutan has occasionally said that he had a schedule for moving from suborbital to orbital spaceflight, but on Thursday he downplayed the prospects for commercial orbital travel. "I don't see anything out there right now that I would put my own money into as being the solution for affordable, safe enough flying of the public to orbit," he said.

Extending passenger spaceflight to Earth orbit would call for future breakthroughs, from people who might be considered "wacky" today, Rutan said. "Usually the wacky people have the breakthroughs," he observed. "The 'smart' people don't."

Fulfilling his dream of safe, affordable flights to the moon would probably require even bigger breakthroughs, including novel ideas for space propulsion, he said. "If I knew what these breakthroughs were, I wouldn't screw around with suborbital space tourism, period," he said.

Rutan peppered his speech with sharp remarks about some of the businesses and organizations represented at the luncheon — and tried to take the edge off those remarks by reminding his listeners that "this is a humorous talk." Here's a sampling:

  • He criticized current legislation that called for the FAA to regulate suborbital passenger spacecraft like rockets rather than airplanes, with a temporary "fly at your own risk" policy for ticket-buyers. "There is no focus on the protection of those who buy tickets and fly in space, and that's wrong, it's crippling to the industry, and it's going to have to be changed for there to be a sustainable industry," he said. During a later talk, Patricia Grace Smith, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said that the legislation was often misunderstood — and that the legislation would be revisited if problems arose.
  • He wondered what happened to his former rivals in the X Prize competition, saying that he didn't "see anything out there" and that some of them "have given up." In fact, several X Prize competitors are working to field suborbital spacecraft, although Rutan's team is admittedly farther along.
  • Rutan said anyone offering spacecraft for commercial service should demonstrate their confidence in the system's safety by having their children be among the first fliers, as Branson has said he will do. In response, Chuck Lauer, Rocketplane Kistler's director of business development, said he thought that personal commitment to safety was the norm in the suborbital space industry. "We fly before our customers," he told
  • Rutan said he was bothered by the fact that some involved in the space industry were resorting to "racing antique home-builts to prop up a spaceport hopeful." That dig was a reference to plans by the Rocket Racing League to stage races in New Mexico, using rocket planes built by Mojave-based XCOR Aerospace. XCOR executives declined to respond to Rutan's comments.