June 17, 1943 • Portland, Oregon
Burt Rutan designed the first privately financed spacecraft to carry an ordinary citizen into space. On a June morning in 2004, Rutan's innovative SpaceShipOne rose from the Mojave Desert in California, flown by test pilot Mike Melvill (c. 1942–), climbed through the clouds, and entered space. It was an important date in the history of aviation, and Rutan hoped it would be the start of a new era of adventure travel—that of space tourism.
Rutan and his brother, Richard (1938–), a former U.S. Air Force combat pilot, have been aviation pioneers for nearly all of their adult lives. Born Elbert L. Rutan on June 17, 1943, in Portland, Oregon, Rutan grew up in Dinuba, a town in California's Central Valley area. The Rutans' father, a dentist, had a pilot's license and owned a small plane. Both Rutan and his brother were fascinated by air travel as youngsters. Dick was five years older than Burt and sometimes refused to let him play with his collection of model aircraft. In response, Burt began building his own.
The Rutan brothers entered model plane contests in the area, and Burt soon became known as a clever designer. One race involved mimicking the fighter planes that land on aircraft carriers. "Burt built a plane that looked like a contemporary Navy fighter," Dick recalled in an interview for Smithsonian with Edwards Park. "Then he worked out how to do a power stall with it. The thing would almost hover over the deck, tail down, engine full on, until he dropped it at exactly the right spot and engaged the arresting gear. He always won."
"I don't care about taking the risk that something won't succeed. That's the big difference between me and the engineers who work in aerospace. Or the managers of the engineers who work in aerospace. They're absolutely frightened of failure."
Before he obtained his own driver's license, Rutan often had his mother take him out on the back roads near their home with one of his new model airplane designs. He instructed her to drive fast, so that he could test the aerodynamics of his latest model plane by holding the plane out the window. Aerodynamics is a scientific term that refers to the study of the effect of air and other gases on objects in motion. When he was in college at California State Polytechnic University, Rutan even built his own small wind tunnel, a device that scientists use to conduct tests in aerodynamics. He installed it atop his Dodge Dart station wagon to help him refine his designs. These experiments led him to build his first full-size plane, which he called the VariViggen.
In 1965 Rutan graduated third in his class at Cal State Polytechnic with an aeronautical engineering degree. He went to work as a civilian flight test project engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, the U.S. military facility near Mojave, California, which is the site of nearly all of the aviation records set in the latter half of the twentieth century. During his seven years there, Rutan helped fixed a troubling flaw in the F-4 fighter jet. The U.S. military had spent a small fortune to build it, but the F-4 sometimes went into flat spins and crashed. Rutan came up with a way to give it better in-flight stability and devised a recovery system for the times it went into a spin.
September 9, 1908: U.S. Army Lieutenant Frank P. Lahm becomes the first passenger to travel in an airplane. Lahm rides along on a six-minute flight with airplane co-inventor Wilbur Wright at Fort Meyer, Virginia.
March 16, 1926: American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard makes first successful launch of a liquid-fueled rocket, in Auburn, Massachusetts.
October 14, 1947: American pilot Chuck Yeager is recorded as the first human to break the sound barrier of 660 miles per hour in a Bell SX-1 rocket plane.
September 7, 1956: U.S. test pilot Iven C. Kincheloe becomes first person to reach space after being launched from a B-50 U.S. Air Force plane. Kincheloe and his smaller Bell X-2 rocket plane peaked at 126,500 feet above Earth and landed safely. He died in another test flight two years later.
March 30, 1961: American test pilot Joe Walker reaches an altitude of 169,600 feet in an X-15 rocket plane.
April 12, 1961: Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union becomes the first human to orbit Earth.
April 12, 1981: The Columbia space shuttle becomes the first winged vehicle in orbit, and also makes the first runway landing of a spacecraft in history.
April 12, 2001: American Dennis Tito buys a seat on the Russian Soyuz craft and becomes the first tourist in space.
Rutan left Edwards in 1972 to become the director of flight testing for the Bede Aircraft Company in Newton, Kansas. He also continued to work on his own plane designs. But Rutan felt that his innovative ideas would never reach others if he tried to work with traditional airplane manufacturing companies. In June of 1974 he founded the Rutan Aircraft Factory (known as RAF) in Mojave. It produced and sold designs for the VariViggen and other light aircraft that could be built at home by do-it-yourself enthusiasts. RAF quickly became a leader in aviation design, and Rutan a hero among the engineers and pilots who liked to build their own small planes. His VariEze aircraft, for example, was made out of lightweight composite material and had a small extra wing in the nose called a canard. If a plane experienced a problem in mid-flight, the canard lost lift first, not the main wing. This allowed the pilot to stabilize the plane.
For many years Rutan tested his planes himself, or had his brother pilot them. They showed off the newest RAF models at annual Experimental Aircraft Association shows. But Rutan had some near-misses, and quit testing planes after a friend of his died in 1978. His brother, however, was eager to take on one of the final challenges left in aviation: a non-stop, around-the-world flight. Over dinner one evening in 1981, Rutan sketched on a napkin his idea for a new kind of plane. It would have space for enough fuel to make the 24,986-mile trip without stopping to fill the tank. Previously, the distance record was held by a U.S. B-52 bomber, which flew from Okinawa, Japan, to Madrid, Spain, in 1962, without refueling or stopping. U.S. Air Force planes had made similar trips in the 1940s and 1950s, but were refueled in mid-air.
The plane that Rutan designed, the Voyager I, made its historic flight in December of 1986. It carried 7,011 pounds of fuel in tanks that looked similar to a pair of outriggers on a canoe. Its cabin, with room for Rutan's brother and his co-pilot, Jeana Yeager (1952–), was the size of a small closet. They had to be in a reclining position to fly the plane, which was as loud as a lawn mower. The flight took nine days.
During the entire time, Rutan kept in contact with his brother and Yeager from a command center at Edwards Air Force Base. He talked them through more than one bout of bad weather, including a typhoon over the Pacific Ocean. "Our own data said that the Voyager flight was probably not going to happen," Rutan told Andy Meisler of the New York Times several years later. "We had seven major failures in the 340 hours the plane had flown, and we were planning a 225-hour single flight, almost all over oceans. As far as the pilots' fatigue and their ability to stand up under even moderate levels of turbulence and so on, our data showed they would not even get to the Philippines."
But the Voyager I successfully completed its flight and touched down safely on December 23, 1986. Rutan donated it to the Smithsonian Institution, and then moved on to new challenges. In 1982 he founded another company, Scaled Composites Inc., which was an aerospace prototype development firm. It created prototype models for new aircraft, but Rutan also took on other interesting jobs that required solving aerodynamics challenges. He designed an eighty-five-foot rigid sail that was used on the winning yacht in the 1988 America's Cup race. In 1992 he created an "Ultralite" show car for General Motors Corporation, which was made of lightweight plastics composites. In 1996 he rolled out the Boomerang, a unique asymmetrical twin-engine plane capable of speeds of three hundred miles per hour. He designed an adjustable-wing aircraft capable of high altitudes, called the Proteus, which made its first flight on July 26, 1999.
Became the first company in space
Rutan spent the next several years working on a new pet project, which he called SpaceShipOne. It was funded by Paul Allen (1953–), a co-founder of Microsoft, and cost an estimated $20 million. Space-ShipOne was a passenger rocket that could be carried aloft by a larger plane, also built by Rutan and his company, called the White Knight. The passenger rocket and its test pilot could then be launched into space once it reached a certain altitude.
Rutan and Allen were trying to win the Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne. The new aviation challenge had been announced in 1996, and had a deadline of January 1, 2005. A $10 million award would be given to the first privately funded group to fulfill the following requirements: that their craft hold three people, reach the 62.5-mile-high sub-orbital flight, and repeat the launch again within a two-week period. Sub-orbital space is where the laws of gravity that govern Earth's physical properties end and weightlessness begins.
Rutan's longtime dream of conquering space with one of his planes came true on June 21, 2004. Mike Melvill, a pilot and employee of Rutan's, climbed aboard SpaceShipOne, which was then launched by the White Knight. After a successful flight, the plane landed safely on an airstrip at the Mojave Airport. Melvill told reporters at a press
Rutan watched the successful SpaceShipOne voyage from the ground in Mojave. He hoped that a new niche in adventure travel would begin thanks to his company's extraordinary feat. He imagined that space tourists might pay to visit "a kind of astronauts' training school, if you will," as he explained to Daily News writer Deborah Hastings. "In some place like Cancun. It would be like a regular two-week vacation with great food and things to do at night. It's kind of like a ride at Magic Mountain.... It isn't just a roller coaster ride. You are officially added to the list of astronauts."
Much of Rutan's work takes place at hangars near his unique pyramid-shaped home in Mojave, California. After the notorious disasters that occurred on two U.S. space shuttle flights, he was even more firmly convinced that his company's planes would serve the twenty-first century's next generation of pioneers. "Entrepreneurs developed the airplane," he reminded New York Times journalist Andrew Pollack, "not governments."
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