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Rutan and autograph seekers
Burt Rutan was all smiles when he signed autographs after his speech, but his comments may have created more than a few frowns in the audience. (credit: J. Foust)

The space industry’s curmudgeon

In many fields, elder statesmen—those individuals who have provided a lifetime of service and have made major accomplishments—are often accorded some degree of deference, including when they speak. They often have the freedom to go off the beaten path and make critical statements that would make other speakers—or members of the audience—a bit uncomfortable. Their standing makes them resistant, if not outright impervious, to criticism themselves.

There is, though, a fine line between being a critic and being a curmudgeon: one offers specific assessments, and sometimes proposes solutions, while the other is dismissive of most everything. In his luncheon speech May 4th at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Los Angeles, Scaled Composites CEO Burt Rutan walked a fine line between the two. Over the course of nearly an hour, he took aim at a wide range of targets in the space industry, from NASA to the FAA to other suborbital vehicle developers, leaving people since then to debate both the accuracy and effectiveness of his comments.

NASA, the Vision, and the need for breakthroughs

In previous public comments, Rutan has made it clear that he is no fan of NASA, sometimes pronouncing the name of the space agency “nay-say”. Rutan skipped that rhetorical flourish in his remarks Thursday, opting instead to level a more focused critique of NASA’s implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration.

“I believe that program, that taxpayer-funded program, makes absolutely no sense,” Rutan said. “The reason I believe that is that they’re forcing the program to be done with technology that we already know works, and are not creating an environment where it’s possible to have a breakthrough.”

NASA is “forcing the [exploration] program to be done with technology that we already know works, and are not creating an environment where it’s possible to have a breakthrough.”

That argument on its surface appears counterintuitive—after all, one of the arguments NASA has made in favor of the current exploration architecture is that it leverages existing systems and technologies—but Rutan said that approach would be too limiting. “You are guaranteeing that you’re not going to learn anything new here that is useful,” he said. “All we’re doing is, is, um…” he hesitated. “Well, I don’t know what we’re doing, but it doesn’t make any sense.”

Instead, he said, “the lion’s share of taxpayer R&D funding should be in other types of programs that are managed a little differently and encourage risks to stumble into breakthroughs.” While he didn’t specify what sorts of programs he had in mind, he discussed an example of the types of breakthroughs he was thinking of by comparing the X-15 with SpaceShipOne. While the two vehicles didn’t have identical missions—the X-15 was optimized more for high-speed research—SpaceShipOne in general was much lighter, cheaper, and safer than its predecessor from forty years ago.

“I’m telling you, if I do get to the Moon in my lifetime,” he said, recounting one of his goals, “if that happens then, it will be because of breakthroughs that make the kinds of differences that we saw with suborbital manned flight capability.”

He did emphasize, though, that his criticism of NASA did not extend to its administrator, Michael Griffin. “Mike Griffin is absolutely the best guy for that job,” he said. “I love the guy, [but] I wouldn’t want his job.”

Regulation and competition

Rutan also discussed the regulatory environment for commercial suborbital spaceflight, singling out the FAA for criticism. As in the past, he said he believes that suborbital vehicles should be regulated more like aircraft than launch vehicles, because they are better equipped to ensure the safety of the passengers of such vehicles in addition to the uninvolved public. (See “Two scenarios and two concerns for personal spaceflight”, The Space Review, April 25, 2005.)

“What we ended up with is a scenario where the FAA will only protect those that are uninvolved,” he said. That means that in the event of a spacecraft accident, unlike in the aviation industry, the FAA won’t be able to testify at a trial that a vehicle developer or operator followed its safety guidelines. “I think that is not just a small nuance, I think that is an enormous problem that may threaten the very sustainability of this new industry.”

That focus on the uninvolved public is misplaced, he claimed, noting that “there are a lot of streets at Edwards [Air Force Base] named after test pilots who gave their lives, but there’s no street named after someone who got hurt on the ground, who got hit by something.” The current regulatory regime is focused “on making sure that there is super-protection for those that are already at tiny risk, and there’s no focus on protecting those who buy tickets and fly in space. That’s wrong, it’s crippling the industry, and it’s going to have to be changed.”

The current regulatory regime is focused “on making sure that there is super-protection for those that are already at tiny risk, and there’s no focus on protecting those who buy tickets and fly in space. That’s wrong, it’s crippling the industry, and it’s going to have to be changed.”

“There needs to be a generic attitude change from ‘it’s okay to die if you sign a waiver, and you gotta fly so that the pieces don’t hit the bystanders’,” Rutan said, “to identify and encourage the safety breakthroughs that do exist—I mean the inventions that people already have out there—and then require equivalent safety on whatever else you’re going to do.”

He, though, did commend the FAA for the experimental permit regime that was created by the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. That system created an expedited approval process for test flights of vehicles without the same burden of paperwork as a launch license, including a probabilistic calculation of potential casualties to people on the ground, a value called Ec. “I applaud them for recognizing the need for an experimental permit,” Rutan said of the FAA, “and for allowing us, allowing future folks, to do experimental research and development testing without having to do Ec because you can’t calculate Ec for a research aircraft.”

Rutan also took some swipes at the other companies in the emergent suborbital industry. “What happened to the other X Prize players? Have they given up?” he asked. He noted that next month will mark the second anniversary of SpaceShipOne’s first suborbital spaceflight. “I don’t see anything out there… it could be that some have given up.” Or, as he later said, “Some people are still chasing dreams, and even name their ships appropriately,” a not-so-veiled reference to SpaceDev’s Dream Chaser suborbital vehicle that generated some “ooohhhhs” from the audience.

Rutan also expressed his disappointment in (although not by name) the Rocket Racing League (RRL), calling it “racing antique homebuilts”. “Maybe there’s some money in it, but for God’s sakes, we’re not doing this for money, we’re doing this to fly humans in space.”

The only venture that he acknowledged appeared to be competitive with him was a Russian suborbital vehicle under development, the Explorer, which is being funded in part by the Ansari family and whose flights will be marketed by Space Adventures. “It’s beginning to look like our competition will again be those damned Russians,” he said. “It’s like the early 1960s.”

Believing what he cannot prove

Rutan’s speech left those in attendance—and, later, others who read about it from news accounts and blogs—debating its merits. Supporters of other suborbital ventures or the RRL rebutted some of Rutan remarks—particularly those former X Prize contenders, like Armadillo Aerospace and Rocketplane, who are actively building hardware. However, a great many of the X Prize teams have dropped off the radar (see “X Prize losers: still in the race, not doing anything, or too seXy for the X Cup?”, The Space Review, September 26, 2005). One can see the logic in Rutan’s argument, though: it would have been hard for supporters of the X Prize in its early days to imagine that not a single manned suborbital flight has taken place more than 18 months after the prize was won.

The FAA regulations that Rutan is so adamantly opposed to are strongly supported by the rest of the commercial suborbital spaceflight industry in the US, many of whom spent considerable effort two years ago getting that enabling legislation passed through the Congress. Despite Rutan’s pledge to change the regulations, it appears unlikely at this time that the FAA or Congress will do anything in this area.

Perhaps the most intriguing comments Rutan made were about the approach NASA was following on the CEV. The comments, in some respects, are not that surprising: many people have criticized NASA for implementing an “Apollo on steroids” approach that looks in many respects very similar to the original Apollo program. Yet changing direction to focus on the development of breakthrough technologies would put NASA at odds with Presidential policy, which directs NASA to return humans to the Moon by 2020—hence the emphasis on “technology that we already know works”.

Moreover, Rutan said that he doesn’t even know what that breakthrough technology that would greatly lower the cost and increase the safety of human flights to the Moon, or even Earth orbit, might be. “If I knew what those breakthroughs were, I wouldn’t fiddle around with suborbital space tourism, period,” he said. “I don’t see anything out there right now that I would put my own money into as the solution for affordable, safe-enough private transport to orbit.”

“If I knew what those breakthroughs were” that would enable safe, affordable orbital spaceflight, “I wouldn’t fiddle around with suborbital space tourism, period.”

Rutan cited a recent book, What We Believe But Cannot Prove, where scientists are asked to describe those things that they believe but don’t have the means to prove. “I believe, and I think others out there also believe, that it can be affordable and safe, even though I cannot prove it,” he said. “I can’t prove the kinds of breakthroughs that we will have that will allow you to have affordable trips to orbit within the next twenty years. I cannot prove that at all, but I believe it.”

The stepping stone to that, he said, is suborbital spaceflight. “I believe that I will prove that it’s true for suborbital spaceflight. I strongly believe that within the next few years, certainly within a decade, that you’re going to see proof that it is very affordable and very safe. I believe also that because that happens, or if that happens, that it might kind of ring a bell for someone else” and trigger the development of the next generation of breakthroughs that enable safe, affordable flight to orbit and beyond.

For someone who sounded something like a curmudgeon for much of his speech, that’s quite a hopeful thought.