In April 1982, Rutan founded Scaled Composites to develop research aircraft. Since its founding, Scaled has been the world’s most productive aerospace prototype development company, developing new aircraft types at a rate of one each year.
Recent projects include the White Knight and SpaceShipOne, the world’s first privately funded spacecraft. He made international headlines on 21 June 2004, when with Mike Melvill at the controls, SS1 flew history’s-first private manned space flight. On 4 Oct 2004, SS1 won the $10M Ansari X-prize (two flights within 5 days flown by Melvill and Brian Binnie). The Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer designed and built at Scaled made its maiden flight in March 2004 and a record setting solo world flight in March 2005.
Question: Will most of the innovation in this area come from the private industry, or is there a role for NASA or the government to play in developing technology?
Burt Rutan: To use the word NASA and innovation in the same question. Look at what is happening right now. When I say right now I’m talking about since a decision was made to have a shuttle replacement. Look at Aires, Orion and Altair. Look at the systems being planned to go back to the moon. They are very specifically, not necessarily intended. I don’t think this is a conscious decision, but they are very specifically being designed to assure that America can go back to the moon and go back to orbit with a new system without learning anything new. The fact that the US taxpayer would fund 150 billion dollars for NASA to go back to the moon and not learn new breakthroughs to help us go to Mars is illogical. Hell, we went to the moon 50 years ago. We don’t have to do that again. I prefer that the Russians did it. When they find the Apollo sites and put those pieces in the museum these people that think we didn’t go in the first place maybe they’ll… Well, you know.
But I don’t see anything beneficial about the US spending 100 billion dollars to go back to the moon unless we learn something new that will help us go to the moons of Saturn okay and so we ought to use that to breed new breakthroughs and to test new breakthroughs and to fund it. But look at what is going with Aries Orion. They’re taking a steel case solid motor leftover from the shuttle, essentially off the shelf technology, well proven and they’re taking a J2 engine, which is a rocket engine developed for Saturn. Hell, I watched it run when I was in college in 1963 and that’s the engine we’re going to use in upper stage. This whole thing is put together to assure that we can’t learn anything new, to assure there cannot be innovation. The reason is it’s less risk, so we’re doing less risk with the taxpayer dollars. Well if you’re doing research using taxpayer dollars, you better put yourself in a position so that that research can stumble into a breakthrough and that research has creativity and an environment for innovation and when you find a breakthrough if it looks risky as hell you got to do it because if it works you have a better future. That’s what research is all about. NASA is doing nothing but development. They’re not doing research in manned spaceflight at all and I see no reason for them to do that because we already know that it will work and we already know exactly how it will work.
Question: Was there ever a time when NASA had the sparks of creativity and innovation?
Burt Rutan: Oh, absolutely. We had made one suborbital spaceflight with a medium range Redstone missile. I mean the thing is only about this big around. Allan Shepherd’s flight and John Kennedy got up there. If he had spoken the truth on that statement to Congress. If he had spoken the truth he would have gotten up there and said you know the damn Russians, they’re really a third world society. They’re communism. They don’t have a free enterprise system, but they went out and they beat us and that’s really embarrassing to us that they had Sputnik before we had Explorer. They had Gagarin before we had Allan Shepherd and they beat us and we’re embarrassed by that and we’ve got to do something that’s impressive so that other folk will look at it and say well, listen, America is the leader, not Russia. So we can’t go out and match what they’re doing. The Russians did much bigger space launch vehicles for launching satellites and for getting men in orbit. They did that much sooner than America because America was very good at something else. America was good enough to make a small compact lighter weight nuclear weapon. The Russians still had these big clunky heavy ones, so they had to build the big boosters in the arm’s war, so now all of the sudden Russia could take off the shelf and put into orbit much heavier things than we could, so that’s why they had the original leadership. It’s good that we lost that because we would not have gone to the moon if we weren’t coming from behind and had this need to bring back national prestige because we’d been clobbered by the damn Russians. But anyway, Kennedy didn’t say that. He said good things. It fired everybody up, and when he said it we had no capability of doing that at all in many areas. It wasn’t just building bigger boosters. We didn’t know how to navigate to go to the moon. We didn’t know how to build computers and software and controls to do that. We didn’t know how to make rockets that would restart in space. You can list dozens of very important things that had to be breakthrough technologies in order for us to meet that goal of the roundtrip to the moon in the 1960s, so during that time period from the time that Kennedy made his talk 21 days after the Allen Shepherd suborbital flight, until we had a successful lunar landings, in that enormously short period of time… What was it, eight, eight and a half years? In seven years we developed and flew safely, with no accidents, five different launch systems for human spaceflight. The Redstone, the Atlas, the Titan, the Saturn I and the Saturn V. They were all flown without accidents, perfect safety record, five different ones in seven years. Now compare that to us trying to do Aries Orion with off the shelf parts. What? I mean NASA should have looked at that and said well this is too easy, give to Ford or General Motors or something because we already know how to do that and you know give us something hard to do. Give us a challenge to go to the moons of Saturn then we’ll have to invent new stuff in order to believe that we can do it. In the ‘60s we had to invent new stuff in order to believe that we could do it.
Now I like to call the difference between research and development. Some people use that interchangeably. They’ll say R&D. They’re two totally different things. I believe that research, that you can claim that you’re doing research only if half of the people, and I’m talking about half of the experts, believe that the goal is impossible. Impossible yeah, it’s hard, but believe the goal is impossible and you think well, wait a minute. We wouldn’t spend money for something if half the experts think it’s impossible. Well, if you don’t you’re doing development.
Let’s look at the aerospace industry as it was just after the Kennedy talk. We were hiring like crazy. We were trying to get people graduated from college. Hey, you got to go to the program. We need you. They were taking people that were doing these high performance racing dragsters and getting them to help develop the turbo pumps for the rocket engines. They were reaching out for all kinds of capability. Okay, now aerospace folks thought wow, we’ve get an enormously difficult goal and it will run clear to 1970. You talk about multiyear funding, approved multiyear funding. This is wonderful. Man I can build half my career on this. This is great. Yeah, we can do it. Okay, that was what everybody’s feeling was. That’s what everybody’s… and you look at the interviews during that time period. Yeah, we can do this. We’re going to do it you know. Okay, take anyone, I don’t care whether he was a NASA administrator, an engineer or a worker in the shop, anybody, take them in 1961, bring them into a room by themselves and say, “What is your net worth?” And they’ll tell you. And say, “Would you bet everything you have that this is actually going to happen that we’ll do a manned flight before 1970 to the moon?” A small minority of those people would bet their own money that it would happen, i.e., they don’t think it’s possible to do that in that short of time period because to do it you had to invent things we didn’t know. So the 1960s at NASA was enormous amount of research. The 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and whatever it was a lot less. Okay, Allen Shepherd was on the first American spaceflight, suborbital flight like we did with SpaceShipOne. Ten years after that Allen Shepherd was golfing on the moon. 1971 he played golf on the moon, in ten years.
Recorded on January 25, 2010