The Right Stuff
Forget cyberspace. Geeks are about to conquer outer space. And the $10 million X Prize is just the beginning.
By Carl Hoffman
"You ain't seen nothing yet!" says Burt Rutan. We're standing on the tarmac of Mojave Airport, 100 miles north of Los Angeles, out where the tumbleweeds blow and a hundred mothballed airliners gleam in the scorching sun. Rutan's smiling face is turned skyward, his bodacious Elvis-like white sideburns whipping in the desert wind. "Watch." Out of the heavens streaks White Knight - an airplane that looks like a spaceship mated with a water bug, with twin tail booms and long, straight wings suspended over a capsule shaped like a bullet. "Now you'll see him go right into boost on full afterburner." White Knight dives low over our heads, pitches up, and screams 80 degrees skyward in a remarkable display of muscle, its carbon fiber airframe powered by two afterburning jet engines. At 10,000 feet it rolls over, a small white cross in a sea of eternal blue. "Dammit! Those guys are having too much fun," yells Rutan. "I'm gonna have to stop paying them!"
White Knight, designed by aerospace maverick Burt Rutan to carry a manned suborbital ship to its high-altitude launch zone and kick off a private rocket revolution.
"Now," he says, reaching toward the plane with his hand, "he's positioning for a simulated landing in the spaceship." Speed brakes pop up on White Knight's wings. Gliding without power, it drops fast and smooth onto the runway. "It won't be long till we return from space and land just like that!"
Two years ago, White Knight didn't exist. But Burt Rutan is known as a fast-moving aeronautical genius, and White Knight isn't just an airplane, it's a mother ship, stage one of the first new manned space program to be unveiled since the space shuttle in 1981. Back in Rutan's hangar sits the rest of his hardware: a stubby-winged craft dubbed SpaceShipOne, a full-on flight simulator, a mission control van, a rocket engine test stand, and a refueling cart. It's all space-ready, developed covertly over the past two years, funded by a single secret benefactor, and rolled out to the public for the first time today.
Rutan, after a successful test in the Mojave.
The mere allusion to NASA sets Rutan off with the fire of a Southern preacher talking about the devil. "NASA abandoned affordability in favor of the shuttle, and now it's spending hundreds of millions to study frog legs. I want to fly in space, and I'm tired of waiting for NASA. If we can show the world we can do this safely at extremely low cost, there'll be a renaissance in space." And Rutan will have won the X Prize, a $10 million purse to the first team that sends three people 100 kilometers above Earth twice within two weeks.
To pocket the dough, though, Rutan will have to beat 23 other teams officially entered in the competition. At least three are playing with genuine hardware. Starchaser Industries, in Manchester, England, has already sent a 37-foot solid-fueled rocket to 5,541 feet, with more launches planned this summer. Canadian Arrow, in London, Ontario, is testing the engines of its modified V-2 rocket. And Armadillo Aerospace's John Carmack, the legendary coder behind Doom and Quake, is building a computer-controlled, hydrogen peroxide-powered vehicle in Mesquite, Texas. Then there are three teams not officially entered but rapidly developing rocketry under the radar, including Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin (see "Amazon Enters the Space Race").
Rutan, at home beside his mural of the pyramids at Giza.
Perhaps, but Ressi may just be playing the objective board member. He knows Rutan is no bar-stool dreamer; since 1974, Rutan has designed from scratch, built, and flown 38 different aircraft, all without a single fatality or injury. His company, Scaled Composites, has developed everything from Voyager, the only airplane to fly nonstop around the world on one tank of gas, to the outer shell of the DC-X, a prototype single-stage spaceship for McDonnell Douglas. Which is why the biggest names in aerospace are here today. There's 80-year-old Maxime Faget, configuration designer of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo rockets; Brigadier General Simon "Pete" Worden, in charge of the US Air Force's center for space transformation; moonwalking astronaut Buzz Aldrin; balloonist Steve Fossett; Dennis Tito, the world's first space tourist; and Kevin Petersen, head of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. "Burt's a legend," says Russ Lee, curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "He's careful about what he says, and he wouldn't go public unless he's really confident." No question about it, says Worden, running his eyes over the curvaceous lines of Rutan's spaceship, "this is really significant. It's all privately funded and shows we're on the verge of a revolution in getting things to space."
That's exactly what Peter Diamandis envisioned when he created the X Prize. It's 10 pm and Diamandis and most of his 11-person board - all major contributors to the award - are celebrating the rollout by pounding hot sake on the second-story terrace of a hip Asian-fusion restaurant overlooking the runway of Santa Monica Airport. Adeo Ressi is wearing a black suit and yellow-tinted black-framed glasses and has a wispy goatee. Anousheh Ansari is squeezed into a low-cut white blouse. Barry Thompson's head is shaved. Eric Lindbergh, grandson of Lucky Lindy himself, is wearing hiking boots. By classic NASA definitions, none of them have the right stuff, though Diamandis might come closest. "At the age of 9," he says, "I knew my life's mission." It was 1969, the year Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and Diamandis wanted to be an astronaut. He kept his eye on that goal, graduating from MIT and Harvard medical school. Then reality hit. "I met an astronaut, and he explained your chances were, like, 1 in 500 to be selected, and then you'd still have only maybe a 50 percent chance of flying. And if you did fly, you'd get a couple of flights. That wasn't my vision of space travel."
Diamandis, a short, compact man wearing a natty black blazer, became seduced by the notion of private industry pushing the frontiers of space. He even scored a Defense Department contract to build a solid-fuel rocket for launching communications satellites. But getting anything into Earth orbit isn't easy. "It amazed me to see how difficult and convoluted the process was, because it had always been driven by government procurement," he says. Not to mention, of course, that even if Diamandis managed to stage a launch, he wouldn't be along for the ride. One day, it hit him: space tourism. "I figured we needed an exothermic economic reaction - something that gave off more than it consumed," he says, taking a swig of sake. Diamandis reasoned there were thousands of folks just like him hungry to blast off - a vast, untapped market of rich proto-astronauts whose desire to see the cold, empty blackness of a vacuum could drive a new era in space travel. A NASA-funded study polled 450 Americans with a net worth of a million or more and found that 19 percent would be willing to pay $100,000 for a ride.
X Prize contender White Knight withSpaceshipOne on its belly.
In 1996, Diamandis created the X Prize.
All he needed was the $10 million. Diamandis, who has a knack for talking his way into the big leagues, hit up 50 multimillionaires and 50 CEOs. "Raising the purse was painful," he says. "I can't tell you how many said, 'It's wonderful, but it's dangerous and we can't be involved with that!'"
Until, that is, he tapped a bunch of young entrepreneurs who'd made a killing in the dotcom boom, and were groaning under the weight of newfound wealth and hell-bent on finding the next boom. In 1994, two months out of college, Ressi had created the Total New York Web site, which he quickly unloaded to AOL, the first of a string of such startups and sales. He describes himself as a very practical guy. "I was thinking about what was going to be the next really big industry," he says, "I mean of the next 1,000 years." Ressi settled on the human exploration of space. "As we move out to Mars and throughout the universe, the number of industries will be as large as all the industries of today - and I could get in on the ground floor!" Ressi donated six figures and joined the board.
Ditto for Ressi's buddy and fellow board member Barry Thompson, 31, who was a consultant with the financial services powerhouse UBS Warburg when he met Diamandis at a seminar on space. "Look, you're never going to beat Bill Gates at his own game," Thompson says, leaning against the terrace railing. "But if you own the first successful space-mining company, you'll make him look like a pauper."
Thompson and Ressi are after more than profit, though. Having participated in and grown rich from the Internet revolution while still in their twenties, they have boundless faith in their own power and importance, not to mention the power of technology. They feel betrayed by NASA, which promised so much with those first ounces on the moon. It's been 34 years since Armstrong took his small step, and they're still waiting for the next leap, for colonies on Mars and the liftoff of the starship Enterprise.
"For the dotcom folks who got a lot of money in tech ventures," says Thompson, "the evolution from mainframe machines to the PC is parallel to the shift from the traditional space industry to space tourism. Yes, the X Prize is suborbital. But that's just a baby step, like the first PC. People said there'd never be a market for them and look what happened. Most techies are geeks who as kids read science fiction, and we all dream of something grander."
Ressi nods with Buddha-like certainty as three more flasks of sake arrive. "I saw the potential of the Internet to change the world," he says. "Now I believe the world will be meaningless without the changes that going to space will bring.
"Of course I won't recoup the money I put into X Prize in the next 10 years," he says, refilling cups all around. "If space tourism works, some folks will make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. But that's not my focus. History has proved that exploration is always worth the cost and risk. There's just no way to guarantee human survival unless we move off this planet - and our days as a space-faring race start the moment someone wins the X Prize."
In walks Elon Musk, the 32-year-old South African founder of Internet payment service PayPal, which he sold for millions to eBay. Like Bezos, Musk is pouring money into his own rocket company, SpaceX, based in El Segundo, California. Officially, he isn't an X Prize entrant. But who knows? Ressi keeps talking about "secret" teams bursting with money. As Ressi and Thompson huddle with Musk, Anousheh Ansari confesses softly, "When I saw Burt's spaceship today, I could almost see myself flying." Ansari, 36, made a killing creating and selling the software company Telecom Technology and donated seven figures to X Prize. "I know it will happen. At Burt's, today, I could feel it."
Standing 6' 4'' and weighing 195 pounds, with those crazy sideburns and intense blue eyes that blaze with self-confidence and conviction, Rutan paces his hangar with a restless, coiled energy. At 60 years old, he has a vision as grand as Ressi's - and is as dismissive of the status quo in space. "Since 1961, there have been only 241 manned spaceflights," he says, standing beneath White Knight's wing. "We made two suborbital flights in the Mercury-Redstone and abandoned it. Four in the Atlas, and then abandoned it. Ten with Titan, and never flew it again. Fifteen with the Saturn and then never flew it again. Now we're flying the space shuttle, in my opinion the most expensive and dangerous system ever developed. There's been no process of natural selection. In 1908, only 10 pilots had flown airplanes. Then Wilbur Wright flew his plane in France, and within three years there were thousands of pilots. People saw him fly and said, 'I can do this.' We need that 1908 environment to be applied to space now. If we wait for NASA, it'll never happen."
An inside view of Rutan's rocket.
Then came Burt Rutan, born with a bird's sense of aerodynamics and a conviction that he could make flying fun again. The son of a private pilot and brother of a fighter jock five years his senior, Rutan was a champion model-airplane builder in high school who soloed at 16 and graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering from Cal Poly. When Rutan saw Europeans designing fiberglass-covered foam-core gliders, he adopted that composite technology to build the VariEze in 1976. Instead of a main wing with horizontal and vertical stabilizers at the rear, like every other airplane, Rutan used a small winglike appendage toward the nose called a canard and a single wing with upturned winglets at the tips. The VariEze had no rear control surfaces, and the canard design made it theoretically impossible to stall. Rutan designed it from intuition without wind tunnels or computers, the composite construction allowing him to experiment with rapid changes to its shape as he test-flew it. The VariEze, which reached 200 mph, was light and sleek, simple to build, safe to fly, and altogether "brilliant," says the Smithsonian's Russ Lee. "Burt Rutan broke the paradigm," says Tom Poberezny, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association. Today, the composite homebuilt movement is the single most vital piece of the general aviation market, and nearly every airplane owes its heritage in one way or another to the VariEze.
How It Works
1.After taking off from a conventional runway, White Knightcarries SpaceShipOneto 53,000 feet.
2.SS1 separates and ignites its rocket engine for a 65-second vertical boost to space, reaching a top speed of Mach 3.5.
3.After approximately 90 seconds, SS1reaches its apogee of 330,000 feet, or 100 kilometers.
4.SpaceShipOne's tail flips up to its "feather" position nearly 90 degrees to its fuselage and begins falling back to earth.
5.At 80,000 feet.SpaceShipOne's tail locks back into place and the ship glides in circles, without power, to a runway landing, about 80 minutes after takeoff.
Going to space "simply isn't that big a challenge for Rutan in the scheme of things," says Shane. By the time his secret donor (rumored to be Paul Allen) appeared with the check, Rutan had already flownProteus for hundreds of hours at 63,000 feet, higher than 90 percent of the atmosphere, where launching a suborbital spaceship requires 50 percent less fuel than it does from the ground. All he had to do was make a more powerful version with enough room and capacity to carry a spaceship under its belly, and he had his launch vehicle.
The spaceship was more difficult, but Rutan's approach was, well, Rutan-like. He built a small, simple composite glider weighing about 3,000 pounds without its engine (the exact specs of the whole system remain under wraps), 12 percent of the weight of the X-15, the only other plane-launched manned suborbital vehicle. The capsule is pressurized, requiring no space suit. For propulsion, he had three choices: liquid fuel, solid fuel, or a hybrid of the two. Liquids and solids are more powerful and widely used, but they're bombs waiting to blow. You just can't keep thousands of pounds of kerosene or hydrogen and liquid oxygen sitting around in your hangar. Rutan chose a hybrid system, and to develop it, turned to two small companies - eAc in Miami, and SpaceDev in Poway, California - requiring them to compete for the contract, which has not yet been awarded.
For reentry, Rutan got radical - and simple. As SpaceShipOne hits 285,000 feet and the zero atmosphere of space, its tail flips up 65 degrees to the fuselage. The configuration puts SS1 into a deep stall and keeps the spaceship's belly perpendicular to the airstream in what Rutan calls "carefree" reentry. No parachutes to deploy or tangle, no precise angle of attack to maintain. Even as it enters the atmosphere and slows with a peak force of 5.5 gs, airspeed never exceeds 155 knots, and there's little heat of the kind implicated in the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia. At 80,000 feet, the tail flips back into position and SpaceShipOne glides to a landing 35 miles from where it launched, nearly 80 minutes after takeoff.
Another Rutan signature is the design of the cockpits and systems of both aircraft. They're practically identical, from layout to avionics to environmental controls, he says, bounding over to SpaceShipOne'scabin. "The actuator that operates this stabilizer" - he points to the rear one on SS1 - "is the same part number for the one on White Knight. So unlike every other spaceship that's ever been developed, we test SpaceShipOne every time we fly White Knight. For eight months we've been flying our spaceship."
Which is, of course, only partly true, for neither White Knight nor SpaceShipOne's simulator can fully imitate the moment of truth when one of Rutan's test pilots fires up the rocket for the first time and blasts supersonic in a matter of seconds. "It's going to be a high-anxiety time," says Mike Melvill, who, as Rutan's chief test pilot since 1982, has flown every single one of his aircraft. "When you strap that rocket to your backside, it'll be horrific, with huge vibration, acceleration, and noise," he says. "The X-15's Bill Dana said all the gs and vibration gave them a disorientation problem."
White Knight and SpaceShipOne have nearly identical pressurized cockpits. "We test SS1every time we fly White Knight," says Rutan.
In London, Ontario, industrial designer Geoff Sheerin is following a similar technological path. Backed by corporate investors, his Canadian Arrow team is reengineering the German V-2, a two-stage liquid oxygen and alcohol-fueled rocket first fired in World War II. "We didn't want to reinvent things," Sheerin says. "We could run off and design something very elaborate but decided to stick with what had been done before." Sheerin says he is weeks away from firing off his first full-scale 57,000-pound thrust engine, and his capsule is nearly complete.
Brian Binnie, one of four test pilots.
Carmack is pragmatic about how space exploration is luring him away from gaming. "We're always pushing hard for innovations in our gaming software, but if I disappeared tomorrow there'd be a lot of people doing similar things," he says. "It's appalling how in aerospace, we've been using the same stuff for decades. There's a big difference between what's been done and what's been possible and that's the definition of opportunity."
For now, Carmack, Sheerin, and Bennett say they're gunning strictly for the X Prize and the space tourism market, but they hint that tourism is only the beginning of their rocket dreams. Bennett brags that his system will be easily adaptable to do more. "All we have to do is soup up our rocket with a second stage and we can go straight to orbit," he crows. "Space will be an industry worth $10 billion, and I think investors will come out of the woodwork when someone wins the X Prize."
Rutan's Mobile Nitrous Oxide Delivery System for filling SS1 and the test rocket motors.
But can suborbital tourism really drive a new era in space exploration and commerce? Critics point out that there's no intermediate step between suborbital and orbital: Reaching 100 kilometers requires speeds of 2,500 mph; going orbital requires hitting 17,000 mph - which introduces complex challenges like the extreme heat generated when a craft exits or reenters the atmosphere at high speed. That's but one reason why, for instance, NASA pulled the plug on the X-33, a 1990s effort to create a reusable single stage-to-orbit concept demonstrator. "NASA spent a billion dollars on the X-33, 100 times more than the X Prize, and they couldn't make it work," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense and space policy consulting group in Alexandria, Virginia. "And the X-33 was just a subscale version of something that would have cost 10 times more than that. It costs $10,000 a pound to get into space, and the reason isn't the government - it's physics."
To him, the X Prize is just another dotcom illusion. "If there's some guy with $150,000 burning a hole in his pocket who wants to take a carnival ride to 100 kilometers instead of buying a sports car, more power to him," Pike says. "But the idea that the X Prize will enable humanity to slip the surly bonds of Earth and get us closer to the human exploration of Mars is ridiculous."
A simple composite, SS1 weighs 3,000 pounds sans engine.
SpaceDev, one of the companies vying for Rutan's engine contract, hopes to gain credibility for its hybrid motor and launch a new era of microsatellites. This year, as part of a NASA/UC Berkeley project, SpaceDev put a 130-pound satellite into orbit by piggybacking it onto a larger Boeing Delta II rocket, and it's hoping to go even smaller - to satellites the size of two decks of playing cards. "Network three of them together," says Jim Benson, SpaceDev's founder and CEO, "and just as PCs can be more powerful than mainframes, they'd have as much wallop as satellites the size of Greyhound buses. But what's missing is a small launch vehicle to put them into orbit." Whether there's a market for space tourism or not, Benson says, "working on SpaceShipOne has significantly enhanced the capabilities of our motors, and that's the important first step."
It's Saturday evening a week after the rollout, and a handful of Burt Rutan's family and close friends are waiting for him to come home from the hangar. He lives with his fourth wife in a white pyramid at the edge of the desert on Rutan Street, with a helipad steps from the front door. Inside there are almost no 90-degree angles; even the pool table in the raised living room is a trapezoid covered in gray felt, the balls red. A wall of mirrored shelves displays his Lindbergh Award and a dozen other medals. Suddenly, Rutan bounds in, grabs a can of root beer, and snaps on the giant TV that dominates the room. "ABC was there today," he announces, "and maybe I'm on Peter Jennings tonight." But there instead are American Edward Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko, waving as they board the Russian spaceship Soyuz for a trip to the space station. "Look!" he says. "You know how many people it takes to support them? A hundred thousand! Can you believe it? We could take that many people and throw them into the sky! For what?! I mean, there's no science up there at all. It's just politics!"
He grabs a plate of mashed potatoes and roast beef and heads over to a floor-to-ceiling mural depicting three large white pyramids glowing against a lush tropical background; toward the front, a strange creature strides across a white veranda. The mural was painted a week ago, and everyone is ogling it. "Giza plaza, 17,000 years ago," he explains. "See, I think the pyramids were made by aliens before the last ice age, and the ice destroyed them and they were just put back together by the Egyptians." Is he serious? "I've seen them and I'm an engineer, and you can't tell me that the technology is ancient Egyptian. If you were a superior race and you knew your time on Earth was ending, wouldn't you build something really big so people would know you'd been there?"
"So when are you going to space?" a neighbor asks.
"I don't know," he says, "but we'll do it fast."
"Any competitors?" wonders his father-in-law.
"No, none. I'm not worried about anyone."
"What's the payoff going to be when you win?" someone else pipes up.
"I don't care," he says, "and during the renaissance of aviation, from 1908 to 1912, no one cared either. Kelly Johnson, Howard Hughes, Werhner von Braun - those were my heroes, and their heroes were those early aviation pioneers. All I know is, we can't bore kids like we're boring them now. Who are their heroes going to be? I want to prove we can go to space cheaply and safely, because it's fun and exciting and challenging. I want to inspire people."
Rutan turns to the mural and says, "You know that face on Mars? NASA did the dumbest thing. They said it wasn't a face, it was a pile of rocks. If they'd said it was a face, they'd have full funding!"
Techies Go Trekky
Today's captains of the high tech industry grew up viewing space as the final frontier - only to see NASA grow meek once the Cold War fizzled. Now older and richer, they're ready to boldly go after their galactic ambitions.
by Dustin Goot
TECH GIG: cofounder, id Software (Doom, Quake)
SPACE OBESSION: Carmack is team leader of Armadillo Aerospace, a space tourism venture considered to be a leading contender for the X Prize.
MOTIVATION: "For me the draw is that manned spaceflight is an interesting engineering problem. There are very few fields where the difference between what is currently possible and what is currently practiced is so large as in aerospace."
TECH GIG: creator, PayPal
SPACE OBESSION: With a new company called SpaceX, Musk hopes to halve the cost of launching payloads - like satellites - into orbit.
MOTIVATION: "The US space program peaked with Apollo and going to the moon. In 30 years we have never surpassed that peak. People who know the vehicle launch industry are intrigued by what we're doing."
TECH GIG: cofounder, Microsoft
SPACE OBESSION: Through his charity foundation, Allen donated $11.5 million to SETI for a telescope array designed to listen for alien murmurings; he's also rumored to be financing Rutan's X Prize venture.
MOTIVATION: "For the first time in our history, we have the ability to pursue a scientifically and technologically sophisticated search for intelligent life beyond Earth. I am pleased to support this important work."
TECH GIG: founder, idealab! (dotcom-era incubator)
SPACE OBESSION: Before it went defunct in 2001, his brainchild Blastoff.com was working to send a rover to the moon; the drive to reach orbit remains strong.
MOTIVATION: "We could be striving forward and putting people on the moon ... or on Mars," Gross told Blastoff colleague Chris Simmons, who added that Gross wanted to "give the space program a kick in the butt."
TECH GIG: president, Colossus (webhosting service)
SPACE OBESSION: Klien has founded a nonprofit called the Lifeboat Foundation, dedicated to building "space arks" capable of supporting 1,000-member human colonies.
MOTIVATION: "Advanced technologies thought to be available by about 2020 may enable one evil - or simply clumsy - person to destroy all life on Earth. My goal is to develop an insurance policy."
Amazon Enters the Space Race
Jeff Bezos blasts off with his own jet propulsion laboratory.
by Brad Stone
Bezos never gave any money to Caltech. The folks at JPL are building an unmanned fleet to explore the solar system, and Bezos has something different in mind. "Those guys wanted to sell the concept of human space travel," recalls astronomer Richard Ellis, who cohosted the JPL visit. "They said, 'If we think outside the box, there's going to be a revolution.'"
For the past two years, Bezos has been pursuing that dream from his own secret lab: Blue Origin. The company, based in a warehouse on a quiet street south of downtown Seattle, has been working to create an enduring human presence in space for more than two years. Its engineers are currently designing a spaceship, tentatively called New Shepard, which would carry seven tourists into low Earth orbit several times a week, in an effort to make space travel as common as air travel. Plans show a Gemini-like manned capsule that would ride to orbit on a single-stage, reusable booster rocket. The $30 million craft would launch and land vertically.
A source close to Blue Origin says the outfit has a 20-year plan: "They want to develop near-Earth space, not only from a tourism standpoint They see industry up there: space colonies, hotels, stuff like that. They want everything, not just ballistic trajectories."
The vision and drive behind the company inarguably belong to Bezos. The 39-year-old has dreamed of reaching space since Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. As a teenager, he won a trip to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center by writing a paper on the effect of zero gravity on houseflies. In 1982, the high school valedictorian told The Miami Herald that he hoped to one day put space hotels, amusement parks, and yachts in orbit. Bezos biographer Robert Spector thinks his life goal is to "amass enough of a personal fortune to build his own space station."
With a net worth estimated at $1.7 billion, Bezos may avoid the fiscal troubles that doomed many of his predecessors with similarly lofty dreams. He has already assembled an experienced team. Aerospace consultant Jim French worked for the Jet Propulsion Lab in the '80s on the Mariner probes. Aerospace engineer Tomas Svitek is a veteran of such maverick space startups as Transorbital and Blastoff! Physicists Maclen Marvit and Keith Rosema ran a dotcom called Disappearing Inc. Former Amazon VP and chief attorney Alan Caplan is working to secure patents.
Bezos himself won't talk in detail about Blue's mission. He says it's too early and that the firm "hasn't done anything worthy of comment yet." While others in the commercial space movement express frustration with both NASA's safety record and its reluctance to attempt risky manned missions to other planets, Bezos passionately defends the space agency. "The only reason I'm interested in space is because NASA inspired me when I was 5 years old," he says. "The only reason any of these small space companies have a chance of doing anything is because they get to stand on the shoulders of NASA's ingenuity."
Discussions with people who have worked with Blue Origin suggest its mission is changing. During the first phase, the firm operated like a think tank, bankrolling research into unconventional power plant technologies - like wave rotor engines and ground-based laser propulsion. Late last year, the focus shifted to projects with more immediate potential. New Shepard is one such venture, and engineers connected with Blue Origin recently traveled to Las Cruces, New Mexico, near the White Sands Missile Range, to investigate possible launchpad sites. The company is also looking to hire. "We are building real hardware, not PowerPoint presentations," said a job notice posted on the Blue Origin Web site in April. "You must have a genuine passion for space. Without passion, you will find what we're trying to do too difficult.
"There are much easier jobs."
Brad Stone (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports.
Burt Rutan with his SpaceShipOne , the first privately developed and financed craft to enter the realm of space twice within a two-week period and receive the Ansari X-Prize. (Photo credit: Burt Rutan)
AN AMERICAN AEROSPACE ENGINEERING GENIUS
Elbert Leander "Burt" Rutan was born June 17, 1943, in Esracada , Oregon , which is 30 miles southeast of Portland . At eight years of age, he was already designing and building model aircraft. His first solo flight in an airplane was at age 16. He graduated third in his class from California Polytechnic University in 1965 and went to work as a flight test engineer for the United States Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base.
Rutan struck out on his own by creating the Rutan Aircraft Factory in 1974 in the Mojave Desert . He designed and developed many aircraft for the home-built market, such as the VariViggen, the VariEze, and the LongEze. All of these designs featured a rear wing, a forward-mounted stabilizer/ elevator known as a "canard," and a pusher propeller configuration. This unusual design became Rutan’s "signature" in the aircraft industry. His success with the home-built market led to the founding of new California company known as Scaled Composites in 1982. Later, in 2006, it was changed to Mojave Aerospace Ventures, LLC.
One of Burt’s greatest achievements was the creation of the now-famous Voyager aircraft. Burt’s brother, Richard, and his co-pilot, Jeanna Yeager, flew this graceful aircraft around the world, without refueling, for a record-breaking, nine-day, non-stop flight. The airplane now hangs in the "Milestones of Flight" exhibit of the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
On June 21, 2004, Burt made headlines again with an aerospace craft called Space Ship One, which was the first privately built, and flown, rocket-powered aircraft to reach space. Later, on October 4th of that year, Space Ship One completed 2 more flights within a two week time window, flying with the equivalent weight of 3 persons and reusing 80% of its original vehicle hardware. These two flights earned the Ansari X-Prize award of $10,000,000. This achievement also broke the North American X-15’s altitude record by climbing to a height of 71.5 miles.
The X-Prize was launched to promote civilian spaceflight ventures. With that in mind, Burt Rutan designed Space Ship Two for billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, which announced that it will began space tourism flights in 2008. Production of five aerospace vehicles has already started and after testing, the first six paying-passengers are expected to be carried into space in 2009. Burt Rutan is recognized, by the aerospace industry as one of America ’s greatest engineers and designers. His work has advanced America ’s lead in aerospace technology by years ahead of the rest of the world.
Younger youth. Burt Rutan has built his reputation on "getting high," — high into space, that is. And he’s done it without smoking marijuana, or abusing alcohol or drugs. His Voyager and Space Ship One craft have set global records still to be broken, and his achievements are hallmarks in the annals of manned space flight history. One can only wonder at what new records he is yet to establish— and no doubt he would be the first to tell you that he does it all without drugs or alcohol. Who knows — there might be another Dick Rutan sitting in this room today. Should it be you, would you want to jeopardize your future potential and achievement with alcohol or drug abuse? Burt Rutan’s advice would without doubt be: Drug-free! Way to be!
Older youth. The X-15 was an incredible aircraft, capable of flight accomplishments unimagined by many, and characterized most often by imaginary craft illustrated only in comic books and science fiction movies. Even so, the plane was very real, and the pilots who flew it were repeatedly setting secret performance records in speed and altitude considered unachievable at the time. Imagine then, that someone might come along with radical aerospace engineering ideas for aircraft that could exceed even X-15 capabilities. Burt Rutan is just such an individual. Not only did he have such ideas, he was able to put those ideas into motion by building not one but several record-setting and trend-breaking craft capable of carrying humans into space. In the very near future, it will likely be possible to board a plane designed by Burt Rutan and travel through space, above the Earth’s atmosphere, to arrive at a location on the opposite side of the globe in record-shattering time!
Burt Rutan is certainly intelligent and he knows how to put his intellect to good use. He does not have the time or the desire to smoke marijuana, or to abuse drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine. He knows full well the terrible risks he would be taking by suffering possibly severe and life-long brain damage from such irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. No doubt we have yet to see much more of Burt’s inventive and creative mind and the significant benefits and advances in aerospace technology that will result—no place here for drugs or alcohol abuse. Burt Rutan would tell you from first hand experience: Drug-free! Way to be!
SpaceShip One Returns After A Successful Flight into Space
Photo Courtesy of Mojave Aerospace Ventures, LLC.
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