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Rutan
Burt Rutan speaking at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa on August 25th. (credit: J. Foust)

Something dangerous and new

The last month has been an eventful one for Scaled Composites, the company best known in space circles as the developer of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. On July 20th the news broke that Northrop Grumman, which already owned a 40-percent stake in Scaled, was acquiring the rest of the company in a deal that closed just last Friday. Then, on July 26th, tragedy struck: an explosion on a rocket test stand during a propellant flow test killed three Scaled employees and critically injured three others, casting a pall over the company as well as the whole entrepreneurial “NewSpace” industry.

Under those circumstances, one would understand if Burt Rutan, Scaled’s founder and CEO, might have backed out of a previous commitment to speak at a space symposium held Saturday at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. However, while Rutan did speak at the symposium, titled “Responsibility for the Future Exploration and Development of Space” and sponsored by the university’s Blackburn Institute, those who didn’t already known about either the company’s acquisition or the accident would have left the event still unaware about either.

Improvements in the cost and safety of space access “needs the courage to try something risky that you don’t know will work, because if you do know it’ll work, you’rel only going to get the level of safety that you know about; you have to try something dangerous and new.”

Rather than discussing recent events, Rutan’s 75-minute speech examined broader issues, including the pace of development—or lack thereof—in aerospace in recent decades, a theme that Rutan has mentioned a number of times in the past (see “The space industry’s curmudgeon”, The Space Review, May 8, 2006). In Rutan’s eyes, there has been a marked lack of progress in the performance of both aircraft and launch vehicles in the last few decades. “If you had told me [in 1967] that the performance forty years later of military fighters would be the same, it would have been totally nonsensical,” he said.

Rutan noted that NASA made an “enormous amount of progress” in the 1960s and 1970s by creating a series of vehicles to take people into orbit and the Moon, and then developing the shuttle. Since then, though, there’s been little progress in Rutan’s eyes, and he sees little room for improvement with plans to use shuttle-derived systems for the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets that NASA is designing to implement the Vision for Space Exploration. “Admitting that the shuttle was wrong is an honest thing,” Rutan said, “but there is not the courage to actually try something we don’t know will work. It means that we are absolutely, positively guaranteed to not solve the problem” of the dangers and expense of spaceflight.

What’s needed to change this paradigm, he said, is the development of new systems capable of carrying people that are both affordable and safe. “I think [we need] the environment we had in 1909, when entrepreneurs were competing for market share, and they thought, ‘Hey, I can do this,’” he said. “It needs not just what I’m doing in Mojave, it needs dozens or hundreds of attempts, and I think that will come. It needs the courage to try something risky that you don’t know will work, because if you do know it’ll work, you’ll only going to get the level of safety that you know about; you have to try something dangerous and new.”

The required level of safety, Rutan said, should be at least that provided by the early airlines about 75 years ago: a 1-in-30,000 chance of an accident, a level similar to that of modern fighters. However, that is more than two orders of magnitude better than current space systems, which have a 1-in-66 chance of a fatal accident. If that level of safety can be achieved in a cost-effective manner, Rutan is still bullish about the size of the market for suborbital space tourism. “I believe that after operations [of SpaceShipTwo] start, that there’ll be about 100,000 people that can fly over the next 12 years,” he said.

Rutan did provide a glimpse of what the SpaceShipTwo system will be like. The aircraft, White Knight Two, will have the wingspan of a B-29 (43 meters) and be powered by four jet engines; a single aircraft could carry out four launches in a day. Each SpaceShipTwo vehicle will be capable of two flights a day. Rutan did state at one point that SS2 will look “a lot different” from SS1, with a low wing instead of a high wing “because we had way too much dihedral effect, which gave us stability control problems on boost.”

“We hope to build at least 50 spaceships,” he said, “and we believe that at the direct operating costs that they will be operating under, ticket prices will come down to the level where millions of people can afford to do this.”

“An absolutely enormous hit”

While Rutan didn’t discuss last month’s fatal accident or the acquisition of Scaled by Northrop Grumman, he did answer a few questions about it during a brief interview after his speech. In his comments, Rutan discussed how emotionally devastating the accident has been to the company.

“That’s a big hit. We have developed 39 airplanes out in Mojave since 1974. We’ve done a lot of very dangerous flight tests, we’ve done a lot of very dangerous ground tests, and this is our first injury,” he said. “To lose three people, and to have three people in critical condition in the hospital, it’s just an absolutely enormous hit.”

Rutan said the three people who were critically injured in the blast are recovering well, with two already out of the hospital and the third expected to be released soon. “While we had very big concerns that we would lose more than three people, those guys are all doing very well now,” he said.

“To lose three people, and to have three people in critical condition in the hospital, it’s just an absolutely enormous hit.”

Rutan said he’s spent much of his time attending funerals for the three people killed: Eric Blackwell, Todd Ivens, and Glen May. “This is a tough thing. It’s something we’re not familiar with.” He added that the company had appreciated the outpouring of support it’s received in the aftermath of the accident. “We have gotten significant contributions to a family support fund from people all over the world. People like Paul Allen and Richard Branson have donated money to help the families” of those killed and injured. “That’s been extremely helpful.”

Rutan had little new to add about the status of the investigation into the accident. “Our rocket propulsion is on hold. We’re not doing any development work on rocket propulsion after the accident,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to come out of the propulsion. We have not yet identified the cause of the detonation of the nitrous [oxide]. Whether or not we’ll move ahead and use nitrous oxide, that decision hasn’t been made yet.”

That investigation, he said, means a delay in Scaled’s closely-held development schedule for SpaceShipTwo. “We haven’t published a schedule, so me telling you there’s a delay doesn’t mean a lot,” he said. “But there’s definitely a significant delay in us doing rocket flights.”

The investigation, though, will not affect work on White Knight Two. Rutan said that staff who had been working on the propulsion system and are not currently involved in the investigation are working on the aircraft. “We’re stepping up our efforts on the first stage, the aircraft,” he said. “We don’t expect a delay in getting our first stage flying.”

All this has taken place while Northrop Grumman completed its acquisition of the 60 percent of Scaled it did not previously own, a transaction that was officially completed Friday. Rutan said the deal was a way to provide a “liquidation event” for those investors who set up the limited liability corporation under which Scaled had operated since 2000, and added that this was the fifth time the company’s ownership had changed hands since its founding 25 years ago.

Rutan said he didn’t anticipate any changes in the company because of the new ownership. “We don’t expect any change at all. We’re operating under the same ground rules that we have for the last seven years,” he explained. “Northrop wants us to operate identical to how we have in the last seven years.”

“We haven’t published a schedule, so me telling you there’s a delay doesn’t mean a lot,” Rutan said. “But there’s definitely a significant delay in us doing rocket flights.”

Despite recent events, Rutan publicly remained optimistic about the future, drawing parallels between the potential of affordable, safe access to space and the development of the personal computer industry three decades ago. “How many here bought an Apple computer back in 1978, like I did?” he asked the audience near the end of his speech. “What did you buy it for? We bought it for fun, we bought it for games. We didn’t know what it was for. We didn’t know it would run our lives in the forms of communication and research and commerce. We didn’t know anything about the Internet.” It was only after “flooding” the market with PCs for years did people develop new applications and uses for the computers that we take for granted today, he said.

“Now, if what we’re doing to fly large numbers of the public exoatmospheric is just ‘fun for millionaires’, that’s my defense on that,” he said. “We don’t know why we’re going up there any more than we knew what those small computers were for.”


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