Burt Rutan is introduced as “the greatest living aircraft designer” and he begins by telling us, “Houston, we have a problem”. We’re in danger of failing to inspire the next generation of kids to think about flight, exploration or creativity. We’re going to go back to the moon fifty years later and we’re going to do it in a way specifically planned so we don’t learn anything new.
Four year renaissance of aviation in 1908 – the Wright brothers flew in Paris and inspired hundreds of new airplanes around the world. At least 30,000 different experiments tried, some of which crashed. In those four years, we invented the basic concepts of flight still used today.
Rutan was asked to make a list of the pioneers of aviation – every one was a child during the “renaissance” of flight from 1908 – 1912. Rutan was born during a jump in aircraft performace, a moment when it looked like airplanes might be able to go orders of magnitude faster than they go today.
Rutan’s company has developed a new type of airplane every year since 1982, some of which he can’t show us. The most impressive, he believes, is the Lockheed SR-71, developed in 1956. He believes the Grumman Lunar Lander was the most impressive spacecraft ever – designed in 1964. We can’t do this sort of engineering now. There were manned flights in space in 2004 as there were in 1961!
We don’t get innovation cycles when the government develops and government uses them. The private sector needs to get involved to have cycles of innovation, Rutan believes.
Rutan’s goal with Spaceship One is to make sub-orbital space travel as safe as “the early airlines”. There aren’t adequate solutions for safety for orbital travel – governments flying people to orbital space have a 4% death rate. The first flights will be “just for fun” – buzzing the moon. Rutan is comfortable with this, pointing out that the first home computers were just for fun.
Rutan predicts that commercial aircraft will jump ahead of military aircraft in the proximate future. Soon, you’ll be able to buy a ticket and fly higher and faster than has ever happened on a military aircraft… and this will inspire the next generation of children to push the envelope of what’s possible in space.
He hopes for a new “capitalist space race” in the next decade – not for national prestige, but for fun and profit. Again, Rutan believes we’re currently losing to the Russians – you can buy a ticket to fly from the Russians, not from the US. “We need to beat ’em again.” By 2020, commercial space flight will be doing 5 times what NASA is currently doing with space flight.