Aerospace maverick Burt Rutan, who designed the historic globe-circling Voyager aircraft and the first private manned rocket to reach space, will retire next year.
Rutan, 67, announced his plans Wednesday on the website of Mojave-based Scaled Composites LLC, which he founded in 1982.
His pending departure was not a complete surprise. In 2008, he stepped down as company president and ceded day-to-day responsibilities following open-heart surgery.
Perhaps the best-known aviation designer of his generation, Rutan gained worldwide fame in 2004 when his SpaceShipOne prototype won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately financed manned craft to reach space.
After the feat, the publicity-shy Rutan partnered with the gregarious Sir Richard Branson to build a fleet of next-generation spaceships based on the SpaceShipOne design that would fly tourists into suborbital space from New Mexico.
Rutan's announcement comes in the middle of critical testing of the commercial rocket known as SpaceShipTwo, which made its first solo glide flight last month. More rigorous testing is required before it can launch paying passengers.
Executives with Virgin Galactic, Branson's spaceline, said they were aware of Rutan's plans for some time. The company said Rutan's retirement would not affect the project and it expected him to continue to have close ties.
"Burt is a giant in his field. We don't view this as a goodbye," said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.
Rutan spent more than 45 years working in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles. He was a flight test project engineer for the Air Force from 1965 to 1972 and later founded a company that designed small planes for the home-built market, including the well-known VariEze and Long-EZ aircraft.
In 1982, Rutan started Scaled Composites and began working on projects ranging from business aircraft to reconnaissance drones to research aircraft.
Rutan, who favored leather jackets and 1970s-style mutton chop sideburns, earned a reputation for pushing the design envelope. In 1986, his Voyager aircraft, flown by his brother Dick and Jeana Yeager, made the first nonstop flight around the world without refueling.
It's unclear what Rutan's future plans are. He previously said he would be among the first passengers aboard SpaceShipTwo along with Branson and his family. An e-mail message to Rutan was not immediately returned.
Rutan's retirement is effective April 2011. He will continue to be known as founder and chairman emeritus of the company.