"It's Mainly Just for Fun"

Space entrepreneur Burt Rutan on how private space flight policy should emphasize innovation, safety—and having a helluva good time

Lots of hard work. Big burst of publicity. Lots of hard work. That's been the pattern for Burt Rutan.

He is the model of persistent performance, averaging more than one new aircraft design per year for over 30 years. Then, last October 4, Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites grabbed the world's attention. They became the first private operation to send a man into suborbital space twice within two weeks, using the same vehicle. Rutan and company nabbed the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, and proved that entrepreneurial creativity could extend beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Now it'll take more hard work—both scientific and political—to make space tourism a reality.

Ted Balaker, Jacobs Fellow at the Reason Foundation, interviewed Burt Rutan last week.

REASON: After the X-Prize you enjoyed a huge amount of media attention. Do you think this burst of positive publicity will help improve the regulatory climate in which the private space flight industry operates?

Burt Rutan : Well, first of all we're working the regulatory climate very hard. We just had a two and a half hour meeting with an FAA administrator a couple of weeks ago, and we have a very specific regulatory plan for this new industry that we call private space flight. And it's a very specific plan on what's appropriate for, not just research testing, but also for the certification of things that will fly ticket-buying passengers.

I think that it is good that the public know what's going on. For example, FAA is having difficulty staffing their airplane certification staff with their budgets now, and for them to build additional staff to certify, not just airplanes but spaceliners, that's going to need, I think, public support in order to help their funding for this. So I think in general if you look back before May of last year, even though we developed some 36 different manned airplanes, we had never invited the press and the public to a research test flight. But starting in May of last year we had CNN, and we had print media out for one of our test flights. And then of course the big one was June 21st for the first manned private space flight where we invited the world's press and we had hundreds of print and broadcast media, and I think some 90 broadcast media video cameras.

REASON: There was that excellent documentary.

BR: Oh yeah, and the fact that we filmed in house for two and a half years and then made the deal with Discovery. They did a very good job with Black Sky. They've shown Black Sky at least three times now and it's a full three hours, so we look back on that and realize that this was the right thing to do. It's not the right thing to do to bring in the public and the media for most research testing, but we realize that it is the right thing to do now, and answering your question, it really will be positive in terms of meeting the goals that we need for regulatory [policy]. It will be very positive, the fact that the public is not only knowledgeable, but is strongly behind us.

REASON: And you mentioned how you're trying to hash out a new kind of policy. What would you like that policy to look like?

BR: We've asked for a research airplane–like environment while a developer is doing his research testing in order to allow innovation, allow the test to be run with efficiency. And then we actually are asking for more regulation than the new legislation edicts. We do feel that the FAA needs to be accepting or proving the safety of the ship as it pertains to the passengers that get flown. Whereas their focus has been on only protecting the non-involved public who live on the ground below. We think that the industry will prosper only if there is some acceptance of [responsibility for] the safety of the ship as it pertains to the passengers.

REASON: What's the best balance to strike there? Because obviously informed adults already do all sorts of risky things from catching crabs off the Alaskan coast, to taking adventure vacations, or even just smoking three packs of cigarettes per day.

BR: Yeah, well for decades informed adults have taken treks to the top of Everest, even though more than 10 percent of those who've reached the summit have died on the mountain.

Now I don't object to that. I think that's fine. There should be freedoms. That people know that they have a one in 10 chance of dying by doing this and they still want to do it anyway, I'm the first one to say, hey, let them. However, I don't feel that that's the right thing to develop and sustain [for] a private space flight industry. Our goals are much more aggressive than that. Our goals are to have the same level of safety that the early airliners enjoyed, and a lot of people don't realize, but those early airliners 1927, 28, 29, 1930, 31, and so on, those were the first regularly scheduled commercial airliners. They were dangerous as hell compared to airlines today, however they were a hundred times safer than all of manned space flight. Not 10 times, 100 times safer.

Now I don't believe that it's right to say, listen, we'll let people take risks and we'll go and build the kind of systems that have been used historically for manned space flight, and somehow solve the affordability problem, and that's the only problem. We strongly feel that the biggest problem is the safety problem, not the affordability problem. If you fly dozens of people every day, you'll get affordability with almost any kind of system. The safety problem is the biggie, and that's why we think the most significant thing that came out of the SpaceShipOne program was not just showing that the little guy can fly above a hundred kilometers, without government assistance, and government technology, and government funds.

The real thing that we did here is to develop three new breakthroughs, and each one of them is going to have enormous effects on safety. The “care-free reentry” [in which the craft realigns itself automatically] is just one of those, so we think this is the right way to go and we think that we can get that level of early airline safety if we adequately do our flight tests ahead of time. We are developing a process that will not be debilitating like doing a Part 25 airline certification. That's where we're headed and I think it's the right thing to do.

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