Saturday, February 2, 2008

Celebrity Profile - Burt Rutan: Engineer, Entrepreneur, Innovator

The ability to buy a ticket to go to the moon. Orbiting space-hotels. Military planes that can fly into space to attack a target. This may sound like science fiction, but these ideas and more are all goals of Burt Rutan, one of the pre-eminent aerospace engineers in America. And with Rutan working on these ideas, they may be accomplished sooner than we think.

Burt Rutan was born June 17, 1943, in Estacada, Oregon. His interest in airplanes and their design began at a young age, and he started building model airplanes when he was eight. Rutan completed his first solo flight when he was just 16. He graduated from California Polytechnic University with a degree in aeronautical engineering, third in his class. In 1974, after working with the Air Force for several years, Rutan began the Rutan Aircraft Factory where he designed and built his first planes. Later, in 1982, he founded Scaled Composites, LLC, which is one of the leading aircraft development companies in the world.

Rutan has had many successes with his unusually-shaped aircraft. In 1986, Rutan’s brother, Dick, and Jeana Yeager flew around the world in nine days without stopping or refueling in the Voyager, a plane of Rutan’s design that had two engines mounted at the end of its wings and attached to canards. More recently, in 2006 billionaire adventurer Steve Fossett flew the GlobalFlyer, an aircraft designed by Rutan and based on his design for the Voyager, around the world in the first solo non-stop, non-refueled flight. The craft set the record for the longest flight ever, with a total length of 26,389 miles.

Rutan is probably best known to the general public for winning the Ansari X Prize in 2004 through a section of Scaled Composites called Tier One. The X Prize was a competition with a $10,000,000 prize awarded to the first privately-funded organization to launch a manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. The winning craft, SpaceShipOne, was designed by Rutan and now hangs in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. In addition to winning the first X Prize, SpaceShipOne was the first privately funded aircraft to break Mach 2 and 3 and set several other records as well. Virgin Galactic, headed by Richard Branson, has announced plans to begin space tourism flights in late 2009 using spacecraft called SpaceShipTwo, which are based upon the design of SpaceShipOne.

Impressive as Rutan’s record in designing aircraft is, he is just as impressive himself with his leather bomber jacket and his thick white sideburns. His personality can fill up a room, even when that room is as big as some of the auditoriums where he often gets invited to speak. I was able to hear him give a presentation a year and a half ago at Idea Festival, a convention in Louisville, Kent., dedicated to ideas and inspiration. He gave a very animated talk on the future of aeronautics and the space program, and interwoven through his talk were his ideas on human innovation and breakthroughs. When he talked about those people and events that had inspired him in his childhood, we could see his eyes light up with the same excitement he said needs to be inspired in children today. Rutan was very adamant about that one point: children need to have people to look up to to inspire them to achieve greatness.

In addition to other projects, Rutan is currently working with Branson and Virgin Galactic at The Spaceship Company, founded by Rutan and Branson to be the base of Virgin Galactic’s space tourism. It will build the spacecraft used by Virgin Galactic and other buyers. Rutan continues to design and build airplanes, too, and still owns his company Scaled Composites.

Burt Rutan has been on the forefront of development in the aeronautics industry for more than 30 years, and has been recognized many times for his accomplishments. In addition to being named one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2005, he has received numerous awards ranging from the Grand Medal of the Aero Club in France and the Presidential Citizen’s Medal to being inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Rutan has said he wants to continue to push forward and help mankind expand its capabilities in space flight. If anyone can bring the moon to normal, everyday people, it will be Burt Rutan.