Burt Rutan, in his own words
by Jeff Foust
|If I had never seen a picture of von Braun, didn’t know what he looked like, I could still walk into the room and immediately identify him. It seemed like he was not one of us.|
In 1965, when I was accepting an AIAA award in San Francisco for the national student design competition, I had a wonderful opportunity to meet Wernher von Braun. It was at a cocktail party, and we were going to get the award in an hour, and the number of people in the room was about the same as in this center area here [gesturing to section of banquet tables]. I remember that very distinctly because if I had never seen a picture of von Braun, didn’t know what he looked like, I could still walk into the room and immediately identify him. It seemed like he was not one of us.
Over the last 25 years it has become increasingly, increasingly obvious that the kids who dream—and I consider myself still a kid—that they can go up and see these views [of Earth from space] have diminishing hope, diminishing dreams. I look at all those little kids who are excited about going to space and who want to be an astronaut: there are a lot of them still out there, but you look at them and think, “What am I going to tell them? What are his chances?”
I decided back in ’93 or ’94, around in there, that given the difference between the rag-wing little airplanes that were around at EAA [Experimental Aircraft Association] in 1953 when it was formed and a pressurized Boomerang [airplane], maybe there’s not that much difference between a Boomerang and a spaceplane. And I said so, at Oshkosh, in 1996-7: maybe there’s not that much difference. I found out later that I was wrong. The thing is that I had the courage to say, listen, I’m going to give it a try, I’m going to go out and do it.
|I finally woke up one morning and realized, “For God’s sake, Burt, you’ve done about 40 airplanes, we’ve got to do this with an airplane somehow.”|
When [Peter] Diamandis came along in 1996 and said that he’s going to try his best to raise $10 million to put up a prize for something I wanted to do anyway, I changed right then my efforts from a single-place vehicle to a three-place vehicle. I recognized that if there was going to be space tourism so that we can all fly that we have to make these vehicles extremely robust and safe compared to any other manned spacecraft. Now certainly that enormous step towards making them safe is to not go to orbit first but to fly the Alan Shepard and Joe Walker flights. With suborbital you get about the same view and you get the experience of weightlessness. I tried to convince myself that this was good enough as a first effort.
The only fatal accident in the X-15 was related to flight controls during the reentry, and I pledged myself to solve that problem, to make something robust for reentry in any kind of flight control failure. That initially drove me to a capsule with feathers, very much like a shuttlecock, to hold a specific g-level. I was going to use parachute recovery and helicopter airborne pickup. I identified that as the easiest thing I could do first, and I thought it would be extremely robust.
After more study it was clear that while parachutes are okay for certain things, they’re not okay for space tourism. Not just because of their reliability, but because they tend to drift a lot, and you can’t make the experience what it ought to be. I finally woke up one morning and realized, “For God’s sake, Burt, you’ve done about 40 airplanes, we’ve got to do this with an airplane somehow.”
I had problems developing a configuration that had good subsonic flying qualities, like a light plane, yet I had to have an airplane that when supersonic that would trim to an extremely high drag so I could have a low ballistic coefficient. I knew I could do that if I could get it to trim at extremely high angles of attack. I tried all kinds of things, and finally I came up with the feathered configuration—the word “feathered” was just a carryover from back when we had feathers on my earlier designs. As soon as that was shown in supersonic CFD [computational fluid dynamics] to do the trick, then I knew I had an opportunity to do what I now call “carefree” reentry. I knew when I made that work that it was enormous, huge, in terms of what it would mean for space tourism.
|When I knew in my heart that this thing would work, I got a hold of Paul Allen and laid it all out, 20 tasks, and said that I think it will cost this much, and think it will take this long, and immediately he said, “Let’s go.”|
That was a tough decision to make. Actually, it was an easy decision to pick eAc [in the first phase of the competition]; it was a much tougher decision to pick SpaceDev. But, I think I made pretty good choices, because both of these motors at the downselect performed better Isp [specific impulse] and total impulse that I had asked for. I concluded that both were safe motors to run, and I would have been happy to go with either one. We had just a tad more performance, a couple of percent, with SpaceDev, they had surprisingly lower cost, and they had an advantage in the weight of their components. SpaceDev ended up winning all of those by just a little bit, so we went with them with the motor to fly. Both of these wanted to get into that phase of the program. They were delighted to go out there and be able to run an 8-900 pound-second motor, and they both really badly wanted to fly. In fact, we see some advantages in the way eAc did it that may move us back in that direction for space tourism.
[Early in the design phase of SpaceShipOne] I had bounced ideas back and forth with Paul Allen. I was not asking him for money for this; I was talking with him in those days more on telecommunications and the Proteus [airplane] than I was spaceships. I didn’t know at that time that he was a space nut. I found out later that he absolutely is.
When I knew in my heart that this thing would work, I got a hold of Paul Allen and laid it all out, 20 tasks, and said that I think it will cost this much, and think it will take this long, and immediately he said, “Let’s go.”