Big Think Interview With Burt Rutan
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: Where are we in the trajectory of space travel?
Burt Rutan: Space travel is kind of a strange phrase. I don’t think we’ve done space exploration, which is the moon landings. We go to the International Space Station. We’ve had suborbital spaceflights and really none of that meets the definition of most people think about travel. In other words, going somewhere and coming back because you want to be there. The only thing that you could look at as travel I think would be the lunar flights and those were explorations. They weren’t travel in the sense that we think about travel. I don’t think we’re going to see space travel in my lifetime. I don’t think we’re going to be going outside the atmosphere to go to Sydney or Europe. The reason is that’s not a practical suborbital flight. You know people think gee Rutan went to space just over Mojave, so therefore he could turn around and build something to go to Australia in 45 minutes. Well you could, but if you did it like I went to go to space you would accelerate energetically for several minutes and you would fly six or seven times as high as the International Space Station and you would not be able to survive reentry over Australia because you’re going steep, so this business of having a rocket go fast and then a reentry to land doesn’t make any sense unless you’re only going say three, four hundred miles.
So what I’m doing with commercial suborbital spaceflight is really an experience base. In other words, I want to feel like what the people do that are at the International Space Station. I want to float around weightless for minutes. I want to see the black sky and the thin film of the atmosphere and I want to feel this displacement from the earth, which all the astronauts and I’m tired of listening to them tell that you know it’s a life changing experience. Well yeah, okay, I want to go too and you know what is it? Well it’s cool, okay. Let’s do it. A lot of people will do that. I don’t think the most important thing of what Richard Branson my customer, is funding here is just for the experience. I like to make the comparison: when we had home computers in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and so on we didn’t know what they were for really and very few people do with home computers what we did for the first decade of home computers. Okay, now we wouldn’t have had the Internet if IBM was only making six mainframes a year. It couldn’t happen. The fact that we had computers for ten years or twelve years to play games, the fact that we did that just for fun enabled the internet to exist because now you’ve got hundreds of thousands of homes having computers and then when a very smart guy came along, Al Gore, and he created the internet you’ve got this breakthrough then and all of the sudden we’ve got everything. We’ve got our commerce, our communication. It’s everything, our research and our travel you know or our substitution for travel.
So what we’re doing in commercial space with suborbital flights that’s going to be history will show the most important thing is we are going to put tens of thousands and I think we can do a hundred thousand in about twelve years of operations, people outside the atmosphere and these people now will be creative people because they can do and think of what they want to think about on why I’m here. A NASA astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut can’t be creative. He has to follow a predetermined detailed checklist written by an engineer and if he gets a little creative he’ll never fly again. There has been manned spaceflight for 46 years. We’ve had it for all this time and it’s always been constrained to not a lot of creativity to say hey, what else can we do here than is what is written on this checklist? The fact that the public will go out because they want to see the view. They want to float around. They want to go there. These people are not going to be constrained at all in terms of the duties that they do while they’re there. They bought the time. They’re getting the experience and I have a feeling that out of those hundred thousand people that fly in those in those 40 or 50 spaceships over the next say 15 years there is going to be some smart folk in there that have an enormous breakthrough just like Al did and says oh, the internet. You know and what will come out of it will not be what we expect now. Just like our commerce and communication and research and everything that we have on the Internet now was not what we thought would come out of the personal computer the first ten years.
Question: What do we know will come out of space travel?
Burt Rutan: The thing that we will know we’ll come out of it if we are able to go out and build 50 spaceships and fly a hundred thousand people in the first 12 years let’s say. The thing that we know will come out of it is that we will have enormous improvements in the safety and enormous, enormous improvements in the operating cost. You know what is being charged now initially can be charged because there is a lot of very rich people that would like to be an astronaut. You can go out in a couple years and fly all of those people. What is important is that there is going to be a lot less risk because you mature safety by flying a lot, that’s why manned spacecraft is now more dangerous the last decade than it was the first decade and it has been. You know it’s only been two accidents. We killed 14 people and overall 4 percent of the people that have left the atmosphere have died in one of those 4 accidents, two Russian and two US. And when you have a transportation system that the price of propellant is essentially negligible something is very wrong. If you look at any other transportation system, a car, a motorcycle, a train, an oil tanker, an airliner, you name it; about a quarter to a third of the operating cost is buying the propellant. If you apply that to space travel you could do a SpaceShipTwo flight for about $475 and you can go to orbit for about $12,000. Now I’m not suggesting that just around the corner there are things that are so efficient that the propellant is a third of the cost, but certainly eventually it will get there if there is some volume, if there is some demand and when you have that then it attracts investment and then when the costs come down you know everything piles on and grows and expands. That’s what I’m hoping to do and I’m doing it on suborbital now because there are some breakthroughs that we can achieve those kinds of results on suborbital spaceflight. We don’t know how to do it going to orbit. No one knows how to make going to orbit orders of magnitude safer and orders of magnitude more affordable.
I’m taking this step because I think achieving something that has never existed in manned spaceflight and that is high volume and public access. I think it’s important to do that and to do it as soon as possible. That will breed the investment to go out and solve the other problems, so that people can afford to go to that resort hotel on orbit in the earth and take that shore excursion, which is a trip to swing around the moon and then back. You know rich people get that neat shore excursion. I think that sort of thing can happen only if there is a high volume, which will bring the cost way down and people say wait a minute, you can make money doing this, you know big money and they will. People in this business, flying people will make very large profits compared to people that are developing a general aviation airplane or a new airliner.
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.
Question: Can private companies like Scaled Composites fill that research gap?
Burt Rutan: Government funding comes from a decision that, at the highest level, a president wants something done. He doesn’t have to get consensus, but he decides whether or not he likes the ideas of his science folk and his futurists and he wants to hang his hat on something that he feels is important. Okay, so then if it’s research like Apollo you have a simply stated, easily provable goal, man lunar trips and you’ve got the taxpayer paying for it. There is nothing in there that says return on investment. What we’re doing now and what all the commercial guys are doing, Elon Musk for example, he is in that by saying hey, if I do this and this and I beat the pants off of Boeing and Lockheed on rocketry costs I have enormous return on investment. Richard Branson now is looking at it and saying well listen, if this works and something is robust and a low operating cost, which is very low compared to the ticket price this is going to expand. I can lower the cost and get as many people in there as we can possibly fly and still make a profit, so there is return on investment.
So when you look at commercial flight the justification for it. What it boils down to generally is a business plan and how robust is it and how confident that it will work. I’ve seen six different business plans for suborbital space tourism. We dealt with four different folks to get the funding that we eventually picked Virgin to fund and so every one of these has had a very attractive forecast financially, so I think that is what is going to drive it, but you have to have a breakthrough that’s very different than we’ve ever had in manned spaceflight and the breakthrough has to be not just that we’ve reached something that looks good for national prestige or is gee, we’re the first ones to find the moon rock and therefore our scientists can be the first ones to find out how the moon got there or how old it is you know. And I’ve always been puzzled by why that is really important. First of all, I think it’s very important, but what I’ve been puzzled by is when they get the rocks they break it up into 20 pieces and they send it out to our adversaries to study too. You know and wait a minute. We paid for this you know and if you go into NASA centers you find a lot of foreigners there. Why would the taxpayer want to fund with US taxpayer’s research money something that is capitalized better by our adversaries than we capitalize on? You know fly-by-wire, six composites, that sort of thing, the research that we did on that Airbus has gotten more advantage from that because they were more aggressive at putting it into their airplanes in a earlier time period. So I’ve always been puzzled by it. It doesn’t make sense to me.
I think we will see that the job of sending people to orbit or sending cargo to orbit, whether it’s the International Space Station or space hotels like Bigelow wanting to do and has already done a couple subscale ones and a whole bunch of other applications. I think you will see those primarily commercial endeavors and that they have to be justified from a standpoint of return on investment and have a financial motive you know and there is a profit motive to get it justified.
Question: Who or what stands out right now as pushing the envelope in the field of transportation?
Burt Rutan: Well, I think it’s very different which one you look at. Let me look at airplanes and I’ll address the subject of domestic air travel in the United States, not the 14 hour flight to Sydney, but getting anywhere within say the Continental US. The reason that there is a need there is I would argue there has been enormous amount of technologies that should have improved this since the ‘50s, but our domestic travel since the ‘50s has not improved. It’s gone backwards primarily because of more gridlock on the ground portion of it, but to go from my house to grandma’s house in Peoria takes longer now and you know the hub and spoke system was done for the benefit of the airlines, not the benefit of the air traveler.
I like to compare what we should have for domestic air travel in the US, compare that to the taxicab in Manhattan Island. Here is a small area with a lot of destinations and they have 14,000 yellow cabs. That system wouldn’t work if they had only say 4,000 cabs. It wouldn’t work. People would walk or they’d you know they’d go and do the subway and then walk from there. You have to have it convenient by having large numbers and low enough cost so that it takes you point to point when you want to go. The fact that there is 14,000 and there I don’t know how many people. I guess it’s in the millions of people that travel that way. What it means is you don’t have the dead time. If you rent an airplane like say okay, what do you got, a leer jet or a king air? Take me to Peoria. Why he comes back without passengers almost all the time or he sits there for days, which he can’t afford to do, so if you have enough of them you can get on your Blackberry and say I got three guys. I want to go tomorrow at ten and I want to go to Peoria okay, the airport that’s closest to that and an expert system will come back and say okay, here is what it will cost and it will also give them 20 other options and say listen, if you can go an hour later it will cost less and the reason it does is because that airplane then can skip over to Saint Louis and run people back on their schedule.
So you might have some options there and a few numbers down is going to be half the price of what you asked for, but if you absolutely have to take the same number of people from the same two airports at exactly the same time it might be expensive, but with a little bit of flexibility it can be at a price that is competitive with a coach seat in airlines. Now if you realize that you’re going to get there with the most desirable itinerary you’re going to get there twice as fast as the airlines. That’s real important to a lot of folk and so they’ll pay a premium for it, but here is the thing. I like to think of it how that system works with yellow cabs in an enormous city like New York City as just taking that and floating it out through the whole US and people wouldn’t fly airliners anymore. It’s not convenient to do so. It’s again, it’s like taking busses on Manhattan Island and people take cabs instead.
Here is a problem. It doesn’t work unless it’s filled into a point where it all of a sudden starts getting a lot lower cost because of dead travel. What I’m saying is deadhead legs. And you don’t get the time advantages until you have the system big enough. Now that takes probably somewhere around eight to fifteen thousand airplanes.
For the whole US. And people don’t think that way. Somebody had a big start, put a lot of money into it. I don’t know how much, probably half a billion into this little jet, the Eclipse and so on, but the problem with that airplane was that it would be like having a cab in New York and you go around the back and you got some bags and the trunk is welded shut, and you get in the cab. You hold the bags on your lap and a cabbie says, “Yeah, I hope you don’t mind, but to get up there to Central Park I’m going to have to find a service station and get some gas and it will take longer.” And again, that airplane was short range, no baggage, so these things have to have a lot of range. They have to have a low stall speed, so I can go into little airports and again, they have to have a lot of endurance. It’s not extremely important that they’re real fast. You’d be surprised that the cruise speed is not as big a factor as you would think. You know some people say, “Gee, if you go 350 miles an hour instead of 250 miles an hour wow, the whole system will work fast.” That doesn’t work that way, your flexibility in order to go somewhere without stopping for gas nor to go into a smaller airport, which might be right there. You can walk across to the business you’re going to go to is what is going to save that transportation time. So you know again, this is an assumption that you could have a major upheaval, a major change in domestic air transportation system, you know thousands of little airplanes that you hale like taxicabs, but having no change in the efficiency on the ground.
Now initially that is going to cost more, but keep in mind it is as efficient in terms of its fuel use as airliners when you count all the costs, so I think a mature system, one that has had you know a couple decades of real growth and high volume and a scenario where to compete in that and to stay in the business you’ve got to go out there and work like hell to get three or five percent more efficiency in order to have market share and that’s what happens materially. When that system is matured then you have a transportation system that’s enormously important because it’s the only thing that I can think of that will make transportation in domestic US as good as we had it much better than we had it in the ‘50s instead of no improvement.
Question: Are there any innovations on the horizon that would help planes greatly reduce their carbon emissions?
Burt Rutan: Alternative fuels, well, of course, bio fuel is a terrible thing to do. It doesn’t save the amount of energy that you need to make it and you know think about it. This bio fuel thing, I don’t know how long ago it was. It was in the last decade I guess and when you go out and have farmers instead of making corn and wheat they’re making things for cars. That’s horrible. You kill a lot of people by raising the cost of food and that had no advantage. I don’t see any advantage in bio fuel over carbon based gasoline and oil, no advantage at all. Alternative energies, if we get another order of magnitude of improvement on energy storage, which we might because it hasn’t been that long when we had lead acid batteries and now we have batteries that you can go out and build a light plane with a couple 300 miles of range and that means that you can fill it with any kind of energy. Wind and solar is not useful because it uses way too much land and it doesn’t work all the time. You know it doesn’t work at night. It doesn’t work when it’s calm. I don’t see that as an answer even though right here in my yard I can look out and see 12,000 wind generators. They wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the incentives because it doesn’t make any sense. I think we may have geothermal, which is unlimited and extremely powerful and we don’t’ have to go down much deeper. In the future I think geothermal might be a real biggie, not from the standpoint of how we’re doing it now. There is a few geothermal plants out there. I’m talking about the big breakthrough that lets go down where it is really hot and then there is unlimited amounts of energy.
I don’t see that there is going to be a lot of change in oil because we got a lot of oil. We’re not anywhere near peak oil. What people don’t realize is that they say well gee, we’ve only got so much oil left. The number of years of proven reserves with the technologies that we have, if you look at it now, if you go back a decade, that was actually a smaller number. If you go back a decade the proven reserves was a smaller number of years and when they first started being worried about it they thought my God we’re going to run out right away. Well they didn’t include the fact that humans have intelligence and they can invent ways of going after it and you know you wouldn’t have thought of going after you know the tar sands and so on, but now you can show that you can do it as cheaply, i.e., affordably, i.e., it will be done because it’s driven by the market. So we are hundreds of years away from the time at which oil prices will go way up because we really are getting short. So I don’t see a need for alternatives. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have alternative fuels. I mean my house here is getting to the point where it is affordable and it will all be solar and wind and I won’t have any energy costs. I don’t have gas or propane here. I have only electricity, so that I’ll probably change that over and it is efficient to do it pretty quick now, mainly because of the incentives and so on, but I don’t see that as a big driver, something that we should do right away. There is no reason to do it. When oil does get expensive and I’m talking about generically expensive, not artificially expensive because some politics of OPEC or whatever, certainly the way to make oil much cheaper, almost immediately, I’m saying within a decade is for us to use our own and I haven’t been a big fan of us using all our own because I think it would be kind of cool if we just left ours in the ground and then when Saudi Arabia is out we’ll charge them $1,000 a barrel for it. That would be cool. So I don’t see a need for us to go out and drill, but the thing is do we have a lot? Yeah, we have you know several hundred years at least, maybe more if you count the tar sands.
Question: How have your previous aviation projects impacted the industry?
Burt Rutan: That was a question that was hard to answer when we did the Voyager flight in 1986. In other words, you’ve done this thing that looks like a breakthrough because it is a milestone because the earth is this big. You took off with a full airplane. You went all the way around. You made it back and it was important technically because the longest flight non-refueled before that was half way around, so we didn’t make a 5 percent or a 10 percent or a 20 percent increase. Usually breakthroughs give you that kind of things. We did a factor of two percent increase. Now we did it by some things that you can say are breakthroughs, but really they are extremely optimized use of known technologies. I built a structural weight fraction that was way… In other words, the weight of the structure of the airplane compared to the takeoff weight I made a huge change on that over any other airplane and I did it on an airplane that had very long slender wings, which meant it had a very high lift to drag ratio. In other words, an efficient aerodynamics, but I used a propeller that was pretty much off the shelf. I used an engine that was pretty much off the shelf, so I didn’t have propulsion breakthroughs. I had structural and aerodynamic breakthroughs and it just shows you how little optimized research goes on with the development of airplanes because there isn’t competition. There isn’t a need to go out and try new stuff. That is why we have the same basic airliners that we’ve always had. Excuse me, not always. That we’ve had since the jetliners in the late ‘50s is there hasn’t been a need. In other words, gee Boeing unless you really reach out and have a breakthrough you’re going to be out of business you know. Well, it wasn’t true for Douglas. They got bought up, but you know Lockheed jumped out of it.
I don’t think there was anything about Voyager that really made a big difference for the future. Some people will say well, wait a minute Burt, you’ve got airplanes now that are half composites and when the Voyager flew the most amount of composites in an airliner was like 5 percent. Now it’s 45 percent you know with an Airbus or maybe 55 percent with a 787, so I don’t really claim though that what I did with Voyager is what made the airliners go to composites. They were on their way to do that for much more important reasons than what Burt Rutan did with Voyager.
Question: Is the X Prize a useful tool to get people to innovate?
Burt Rutan: I certainly want to like the X PRIZE because my customer Paul Allen got 40 percent of his money back on one flight or actually two flights. I’ve always been a proponent of prizes, but if you back off and look at say the NASA prize. They’ve got these little prizes to promote breakthroughs of commercial folks. I think from an overall standpoint if you’re a research agency that you ought to structure you’re overall annual budget somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of that budget ought to be for prizes, in other words, a substantial amount of money, big money. If you did that you would have a lot of investment goes into solutions commercially because they’d have a return of investment. Gee, you’d find folk going out and spending 100, 200 million dollars to win a prize because the prize is one and a half billion dollars. That would really get the big advantage of what you can do with prizes. In general the prizes that have been out there have been, at least the government prizes, I included also there the DARPA prize, the first one that they put out. It was a million dollars and DARPA itself spent 6 million dollars overseeing the prize. What? What? But anyway, you know I’m a big fan of putting out a goal that you think is impossible and it should be because a prize ought to be for research, not for development. You shouldn’t give somebody a prize for doing something that everybody believes can be done. You need to put a prize out for things that at least half the people think can’t do that
Question: What are some of the challenges to crowd sourcing a groundbreaking idea?
Burt Rutan: Only a very small percentage of people are really innovative. In other words, they really come up with new ideas and a smaller number are people that come up with new breakthrough ideas and have some capability to go out in the shop and build it and fly it, so that’s why there is not a lot of Rutan like companies. We don’t have much competition in the work that we do. Our main competition is the aerospace primes themselves and we always beat them because they have enormous overhead and they have a risk adverse thinking so that it takes them. They won’t do some of the things that we will try and it takes them a lot more time and money to get up the courage and actually go out and build something that may not work and in general they tend to not go out and build something that may not work. I believe there is real breakthroughs out there for orbital access, but if you come up with an idea and there is a lot of ideas floating around, if there is a feeling by half or more of the people that hey, that won’t work you’re almost guaranteed to not be able to attract investment and get it paid for and go out and try it.
What’s interesting is I think the people who are aggressive to fund breakthroughs and the innovative breakthrough people themselves I have a theory that they were inspired when they were kids. An age group might be 4 to 14. “Aviation Week” asked me to name the real breakthroughs in the first hundred years of aerospace and this on the hundred year anniversary of the Wright brothers, so they’re saying hey, 1903 to 2003, who were the big movers and shakers and I started you know Von Braun of course and Kelly Johnson and Howard Hughes. I named all these folk that I thought were the ones who were really the movers and shakers in breakthrough and I found out that all of them were kids during this wonderful time period of just a few years between 1908 and World War I and that was just you know a short period of time when this enormous amount of improvement was done. 1908 there were only 12 people that had flown an airplane and only 3 of them could make a turn in early 1908 and by 1912 there were hundreds of new types of airplanes being built in 139 countries. There were factories in Europe building 500 airplanes a year in a 4 year time period, from nothing. So I think kids then were inspired by enormous accomplishment that they saw happen around them and they happened to be the ones that innovated.
Now go look at who is funding commercial space. I’m not talking about government funding, the taxpayer. Richard Branson, Paul Allen, Elon Musk, Bezos, Amazon.com guy, the Bigelow and you know Carmack, these guys they were all kids during Apollo and as a kid they saw this wonderful amount of accomplishment and they remember that and it gave them the courage as adults that when they got money that says hey, I’ll go out and spend money for that. And you know it didn’t cost Paul Allen much to do this. I mean when you’re worth that much money, what is 20 million dollars? So the thing is it was done because he thought it would be fun and he wanted to be part of something if it did work and he had had essentially no downsides except some you know people criticizing him for wasting money and essentially no downsides if it didn’t work.
Question: What is the design philosophy that unites all of your aircrafts?
Burt Rutan: When you say what is the design philosophy of developing an airplane, it’s driven a lot by what the customer wants. When I had my own small company where we had homebuilt airplanes, most of the airplanes we developed were never marketed, so in other words they weren’t done for return on investment. They were done to explore what might be cool there and they were done for fun, airplanes like the Grizzly and Voyager. The scale is quite a bit different in that it has done several airplanes that are developed with the funding from our parent company. The Triumph and the Aries light attack airplane were funded by Raytheon or Beechcraft, which owned us at the time, but in general our work is a customer that comes to us that has a goal in mind for himself and he is thinking about return on investment in most cases. Or if it’s DARPA coming to us they may be thinking of a research breakthrough. We did one DARPA airplane that was really focused on looking for a breakthrough to do a better airplane for our Desert One failure in I think it was ’91. I forgot. I forgot when Desert One was. It might be earlier. But any rate most of them are including the commercial space thing now. That’s being done in order for them to build a business and we have to meet real specific goals because that is part of their business plan. So the environment that we’re put into has a lot to do with the research that we’ll take. We are known for trying new things even though we have a tough schedule. We did an airplane that we… that the customer wanted it flying within I think it was eight and a half months and we elected on our own to try a totally new manufacturing method for the wings and tail surfaces and control surfaces, something that hadn’t been done before, something that may not work, something that was really exciting and interesting and if it did work it’s breakthrough stuff and we decided to use it on a program that had a real tough schedule and you know at times you could question the sanity of that, but when people dig in there and knowing that they have to achieve that goal a lot of times you’ll find engineers in there Friday nights and Sundays and they’re in the shop themselves building it and trying to make it work and in general we do make it work. So a lot of it depends on what the customer demands are.
Question: What is your process for inspiration?
Burt Rutan: Okay, well I encourage and it seems backwards. You think you’d get real conservative as an old guy, but I did some of it just today. Typically I’ll look at the work done by the new engineers and we’ve got a lot of them who are just a year or two or three out of college and they tend to do things that are sometimes complex just because complexity looks cool and it looks like a more significant design result if something is complicated, but what I try to encourage people to do is to have a breakthrough by finding a way to do it more simply and even if the real simple one has a chance of not working because it’s too simple we’ll try it anyway because in trying it sometimes you’ll stumble onto a solution on why it wouldn’t work and now you’ve really had a big gain. Now you have a simple thing that does work and that’s the real challenge now. You can always make something work by adding complexity, but you can never make something affordable by adding complexity.
Question: How important will aesthetics be in the future of mobility?
Burt Rutan: Aesthetics play a role when you have finished an airplane, get it ready to fly and you paint it white. Usually our composite airplanes have to be painted white so their structure stays cooler out in the sun. And then someone comes along whose only job it is to do the artwork or the aesthetics and he puts the trim colors on and the logos and if you look at SpaceShipTwo for example it has a wonderful portrayal of Richard Branson’s mother floating in space when she was very young and was a model or something in those days. So the aesthetics go on in paint on something whose shape probably has nothing to do with aesthetics. A beautiful shape of an airplane probably is one that has good performance. Now that isn’t true for everyone’s eyes. If they look at something real stubby that is supposed to fly a long ways and has real short wings to me that is ugly even though it looks beautiful like a swept wing spaceship or a fighter. I know that for something to have the range of Voyager it has to have these real long, slender wings so frail that they bend way up. So to me when I look at that application I see wonderful aesthetics in the shape of a wing that I know will get the performance goal and true also from the stability and control, safety and the short field of operation and so on. So I’m biased because I’m thinking of performance and stability and control on aesthetics, but to answer to your questions, if we take a wingtip and put that beautiful sweep on it so it looks like a shark fin that has nothing to do with aesthetics. That does actually does give us better induced drag, in other words, higher performance.
Question: How do we change the fact that so many scientists in academia and industry get away with concealing their research?
Burt Rutan: Well human nature is that folk will do some pretty lousy stuff if they need it promote themselves or to keep their job and if they know that by taking a certain level that or a certain approach and they only are manipulating the data that it will benefit them you’ve always found that some of them do take an unethical approach. I have a statement that I think is published with one of my global warming documents that says if someone is processing and presenting data in order to aggressively sell a product on its technical merits, (and again, a product can be an airplane or it can be a carbon credit). If they are doing that they’re probably lying. They’re the ones that are in control of the data. They’re the ones that present it and you’ll see everywhere, I’m not faulting just the CRU scientists because if somebody is developing a new car you really want to drive it and see what its mileage is necessarily than read about the claims that are in their advertising. So, in general the important thing is all of these issues fallout if you have an active public interplay, in other words, you have a lot of people fly and now you have real safety data and also if in order to move ahead and keep market share and grow and have better profits you must have it to be safe then you know then those incentives fall in line and you have safe products. I came up with an idea which I thought was pretty good and I’ll share it with you because there has always been this big confusion. You can’t regulate something that is not invented yet. Okay, so what should we do for commercial spaceflight? And I found something that was easy to require and easy to assess, in other words, did that company do this and that is it says okay, you can’t sell tickets for spaceflight and you can’t fly the public until after the key managers in the company and the engineers have gone out and flown their own children in the spaceship. Now some people you know their eyes go what, requiring the president of Virgin Galactic to fly his children before he can sell a ticket. If you think about well that’s crazy you know why: an engineer that is designing a spaceship, he may think it’s too dangerous to fly his kids and therefore… Ooh, I was stopped in midsentence by using common sense, wasn’t I? And frankly, looking at how difficult this dilemma has been on how to regulate something as its new I think that’s all you got to do is require people to fly their kids. Don’t require them to fly their wives. Some of them don’t like their wives, but… Okay, fly their pets.
In other words, put the people that are out there making a judgment as to whether this is safe for you the public to fly in before he can make that judgment he puts his own family at risk and if he won’t put his own family at risk he shouldn’t be allowed to sell you a ticket. That’s kind of a simplistic answer, but frankly in everything that I’ve looked at I can’t think of anything that’s better than that.
Recorded on January 25, 2010
A conversation with the aerospace engineer and founder of Scaled Composites
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