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Spaceship guru looks over the horizon

In an exclusive interview, SpaceShipOne creator Burt Rutan discusses his backers, his competitors and his plan for SpaceShipTwo.
Spaceflight entrepreneur Burt Rutan, shown here during a 2005 speech, says "my bottom line is that we have to have some kind of breakthroughs."Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
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As you stroll through the desert airport/spaceport here, you don’t see a “Keep Out! Spaceliner Under Construction” sign. On the other hand, there’s a palpable feeling that behind closed hangar doors, the future of public space travel is, indeed, a work in progress — and in good hands.

At Scaled Composites — home of the privately financed and built SpaceShipOne that made a trio of piloted suborbital flights in 2004 under the rubric of Tier 1 — the fabrication of a fleet of passenger-carrying space planes and huge carrier launch planes is under way. This activity is labeled Tier 1b.

Burt Rutan, head of the firm, is chief design maestro leading a spaceliner workforce. While he’s not about to roll out blueprints or show you factory floor hardware, he gave this reporter a squat-down, legs-folded, but relaxing-beanbag-chair interview in his office to discuss the business of public space travel.

“First of all, just because people have kind of discovered ‘Oh, now we can have a personal commercial spaceflight industry’ … that doesn’t mean we can just throw money at the problem and send people to resort hotels in orbit,” Rutan told

Rutan admitted that he’s frustrated but committed to building suborbital spaceships.

“I’d love to be working on going to the moon. I’m doing this really because I don’t think I can convince a funder to go out and invest in an orbital system that we’re not sure would work.”

In Rutan’s plotting of things to come, Tier 2 is orbital.

“My bottom line is that we have to have some kind of breakthroughs,” Rutan explained. “What’s needed is to create an environment to have breakthroughs … to try things that may seem illogical at first.”

Looking back on SpaceShipOne, Rutan said the focus was on safety, on recurring cost, and asking the question: “When we’re done with this, if it worked, could it lead right into flying the public? Could it be safe? I don’t think that’s been done to go to orbit,” he said.

While Microsoft mogul Paul Allen bankrolled SpaceShipOne and had a lot of confidence in the effort, Rutan added that the investor confessed later that he did think the suborbital project “was a real long-shot.” (Microsoft is a partner in the MSNBC joint venture.)

“I’m focusing now on going ahead and doing something that I never did with airplanes. That is, not just do research but go ahead and build something that would be certified. Produce it and sell it to spacelines and let them go out there and compete with each other to fly the public,” Rutan said.

His hunch is that by profitably flying people by the tens of thousands, the funding pump will be primed, and the recognition fostered that breakthroughs are needed for a high-risk orbital spaceship research program.

“I’m getting a commercial system going for one reason: I don’t think anybody else will,” Rutan explained. “I think it’s really important for me to build a lot of them,” he added, not just a few for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, “but a lot of them.”

Must have checklist
In building the multipassenger SpaceShipTwo, Rutan offered a design glimpse of what’s in store for ticket-paying suborbital travelers.

Along with lots of windows, a close second on the “must have” checklist is for customers to experience weightlessness. A person in SpaceShipTwo will feel just four minutes of freefall, so having a great big cabin is extremely important, Rutan pointed out, “to be able to stretch out your arms and legs and float around.”

To gain some think space about weightlessness, Rutan took his own fact-finding flight aboard the private Zero Gravity Corp.’s aircraft.

“The impression you get is that it’s important to know why you’re floating, so you need windows. You want to fly … you don’t want to be strapped in. And to experience weightlessness in shirtsleeves is important, not being bothered with a pressure suit or tied down to a cable or having a helmet on,” he said.

Given SpaceShipTwo’s flight path to the edge of space and back, the four minutes of freefall gives you a feeling for what it would be like to live in orbit for weeks, Rutan suggested. Coming back into the atmosphere, he said, passengers would float gently to the craft’s floor as it takes more than 40 seconds to reach one-gravity.

“That’s the reason we feel we’ll easily be able to certify people floating around and getting into a seat … more of a bed to lay flat,” Rutan said.

Hauling a SpaceShipTwo into launch position will require use of a mega-mothership that’s patterned after the White Knight aircraft utilized for the Tier 1 program.

That giant airplane will have an identical cabin like that built into SpaceShipTwo. You can take up people and float them out of their chairs. “They can’t tell they are not in the spaceship,” Rutan said.

The mothership will be an aerobatic airplane, Rutan said, able to provide rehearsal runs that produce seconds of weightlessness for future suborbital space travelers, as well as offer a view of the dark blue sky at 50,000 feet (15 kilometers).

“They can practice floating around, playing games, and to get into their positions for re-entry and deceleration. We’ll be able to give them the entire re-entry G profile, and I think that’s extremely important,” Rutan noted. “So we’ve got something here that I think is very special.”

Natural selection
Branson has on order a fleet of spaceliners. But there were other offers before Branson’s investment proposal was picked, Rutan confided. “He was selected as an investment source because he was very early telling everybody what he was going to do, and usually I’m against that. But he’s putting his reputation on the goal of this program … doing that on day one.”

Rutan said that his biggest concern was investment money “getting chicken” on the courage to take risk and to move forward to tackle issues. “I felt that Branson was making commitments so that he, even without me, had to finish it,” he said.

Taking a long look out to the next 10 to 12 years, Rutan predicted that “there’s going to be some very good news and some very bad news.”

The bad news, Rutan advised, is related to the government space programs. “I hate to say that, but the reason is that they are just structured so there will be a lot of money spent and they are not likely to reap the benefits that are going to help us.”

The good news, Rutan suggested as a guess, is that there will be breakthroughs forthcoming, stemming from what happens after the first generation of suborbital craft — including competitors, now known and yet unknown — take to the sky.

“We need what amounts to natural selection to work. Nobody is smart enough to know ahead of time whether something is the right answer. You’ve got to field the good ones and bad ones for the good ones to float to the top,” Rutan said.