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Space pioneer finds NASA dull

By KAT HUANG   |   May 20, 2005 at 4:13 PM
WASHINGTON, May 20 (UPI) -- Burt Rutan may be the creative impetus behind the world's first private manned spaceship sent to suborbital space but he wants to be seen simply as an American taxpayer; albeit one who is not excited about NASA's plans for space.

Rutan owns Scaled Composites, an aircraft design and construction firm in Mojave, Calif. Together with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, he built the experimental SpaceShipOne, which last year flew three suborbital slights with a company pilot aboard to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first commercial spaceflight.

Speaking at the National Press Club Thursday, Rutan criticized the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for its technological complacency since its innovative Apollo years. He blamed the intersection of government and technology for rendering the space juggernaut to simply act as a political tool. Though politics pushed a young President John F. Kennedy to prioritize science in a race for technological parity with the Russians, recent administrations have been less than supportive.

"You will never, ever get the vision and the courage out of the Congress," Rutan said. "And we haven't had the vision and the courage out of the president's office, really, since the John Kennedy announcement."

He abruptly stopped himself and said, "I'm not going to go there."

He said progress in spaceflight technology has stalled in the past 40 years. Failing to take risks, NASA scientists aren't exposing themselves "to the ability to have breakthroughs." Rutan specifically targeted the decision to discontinue service to the Hubble Space Telescope, which will stop working by 2008 without new batteries and gyroscopes, as indicative of NASA risk aversion.

"We don't even have the courage to go back to the Hubble," he said. "And the last time I looked, the Hubble telescope is between here and Mars."

Rutan noted that despite a heavy financial investment, NASA also does not have a goal of providing ordinary people the ability to fly.

Eric Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Space Adventures, of Arlington, Va., a competing space tourism company, agreed.

"Making space tourism flights safer, more economically feasible and efficient is not something the government is set up to do," Anderson said. "If government ran all the airplanes, tickets would be much more expensive."

Though Rutan characterizes himself as "a guy who hides out in the desert and has a hell of a lot of fun with airplanes," he knows a thing or two about vision. He grew up designing model airplanes as an 8-year-old and now is a 62-year-old, designing and developing prototypes -- including Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling.

His goal now is to start an air travel service in five years with a safety rating at least as good as that of early airliners. He would like to see 200,000 passengers fly during the space vehicle's first generation, a period of roughly 12 years.

Rutan said by the fifth or sixth generation space vehicle, he hopes he can get to the point of issuing $200,000 tickets.

If Rutan had his way, NASA and the government would not have a role in the suborbital commercial space industry. Passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, which put in place a regulatory regime to ensure public safety, stands between Rutan and his dream.

"Now as an enthusiast, as a taxpayer, I supported my government taking risks," he said. "We didn't think it was unusual or scary or risky or crazy because it was norm."

If his vehicles garner criticism for providing mere joyrides to billionaires, Rutan doesn't see the harm in creating million-dollar toys. After all, the first Apple computers were toys, he said, and added, "You buy it to balance your checkbook?"

Rutan is counting on someone who, inspired by his planes, will create something bigger and better. And if not, a decade of fun is not such a bad legacy.

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