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Spaceship guru on the mend

Now it can be told: At the time that Virgin Galactic was rolling out the design for the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the spaceship’s designer, Burt Rutan, was so ill he couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs. In the wake of successful open-heart surgery on Feb. 7, Rutan reveals what was ailing him and says he’s feeling better every day.

Michael Soluri
Burt Rutan answers questions during last month's

SpaceShipTwo design rollout in New York.

Rutan, who will turn 65 this June, is the designer of SpaceShipTwo and its history-making predecessor, the SpaceShipOne rocket plane, as well as the record-setting Voyager and Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer round-the-world airplanes.

So although he's turning over more and more of the design duties to the next generation at Scaled Composites, the Southern California company he founded, he's still unquestionably a guiding light on the aerospace frontier. It would be a bad thing for Virgin Galactic, and arguably for the commercial space industry as well, if he were completely out of the picture.

During last month's design rollout, Rutan said he had "not been well lately" but held back on the details. Today, in a brief e-mail to journalists, he provided a more detailed update:

"For those medically inclined, my problem, constrictive pericardium, is explained in the link below. It gave me extreme fatigue for about 5 months.

"I had successful open-heart surgery at UCLA on Feb 7th to fix the problem. Feeling better every day. The complete recovery takes about 3 months.

"Burt's heart problem, 2007-2008: constrictive pericardium."

In a follow-up e-mail, Rutan confirmed that he wanted to get out the definitive word about his medical condition "rather than deal with rumors and the stuff that floats around the Internet." He also added a dramatic detail:

"I did have a very strong case of the disease, which is hard to diagnose, and was essentially out of commission for six months.  My appearance in NYC for the Virgin 'reveal' was real dicey, since I had no capability to go up even a flight of stairs."

I also asked Rutan about the investigation into last year's fatal accident at Scaled Composites, as well as the status of the SpaceShipTwo development effort, but Rutan provided no new information on that front.

Nevertheless, updates are filtering out from other sources: During a visit this week to Singapore, Virgin Galactic's Alex Tai reiterated what's been previously said about the time frame for SpaceShipTwo: Unpowered flight tests are to begin later this year, leading up to the first commercial flights around 2010.

At first, SpaceShipTwo would fly once a week, carrying clients to the edge of space at a cost of $200,000 per seat. Operations would gradually ramp up to two flights a day. Tai told Reuters that he expected the company to start turning a profit "inside the first five years."

Meanwhile, LiveScience has a report from Leonard David about Spaceport America's progress in New Mexico. The 18,000-acre site, 45 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M., will eventually serve as Virgin Galactic's headquarters.

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority says it's aiming to get a license from the Federal Aviation Administration and start putting out construction bids this summer, with completion slated for 2010 - just about the time SpaceShipTwo could be ready for paying passengers.

At least that's the current plan. Virgin Galactic officials, from billionaire founder Richard Branson on down, have said they won't be open for business until Rutan is sure that SpaceShipTwo is safe. So Branson and his team are probably breathing a sigh of relief to hear that Rutan appears to be safe and sound as well.