"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.

REASON: Do you see the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act as a step in the right direction?

BR: Well, it didn't address the problem that I'm discussing, getting an FAA acceptance of the safety of passengers. It doesn't address that. However, everything else in it is positive, there's nothing negative in it. It does address asking FAA to develop an experimental research category for launch licenses. However, it's not specific and we think it needs to be more specific to force FAA to regulate these tests more like airplane research rather than like they did our program.

The license process for our program actually decreased safety and it involved an enormous amount of monitoring. It forced our people to defend the product where our safety policy is to never defend it, but always question the safety. We have to get that changed.

REASON: How did the process compromise safety?

BR: We have, I think the count now is 39, new types—new airplanes from scratch, in 30 years. We have yet to injure a pilot. We've had things like landing gear failure, but we've never had a real accident. And that's a record that no one has come close to, and we maintain that a major reason we have a superb record is our safety policy, that we always require of, not just people building it, but those designing, flying, and testing it. But to never, ever put themselves in a position where they defend the safety. Once they do, you're screwed.

We always want them in a mode in which they question the safety. If you're always questioning it, you can turn around and find something better and immediately incorporate it. For example, if you had turned in last week a report to a government agency in which you've told them the product, as it is, is safe, if you discover something better next week, you have two choices.

One, you can go an write an addendum to that report and essentially tell the government, that, gee, I was wrong last week, it wasn't the safest that it can be, and now it is because I've discovered this new thing. And then you'll find yourself debating that with them and losing your credibility with them. We make changes almost every day when we're in a research mode. So you can see you get into this big back and forth in which they see you making changes after you defend the safety to them. Now the solution there is to never tell anybody that it's safe, but always question it, which then allows you to immediately incorporate safety features and go on. And, instead of firing somebody who designed something unsafe, you reward whoever found a better way and congratulate him.

The other choice that people have is they'll see something safer and they'll realize they just told the government that it was safe last week. And then they make the decision that, well, you know, last week's configuration—it's safe enough. Another thing too is that we're a small company. We don't have a big safety department that works with the government regulators. We have the people that are there testing the product and we can only afford to have the team that's there. And now we get our team, instead of focusing on the job of making it as safe as possible, they're distracted to write reports and provide data for the government.

Another thing too is it forced us into flying trajectories and glide paths back over the airport that weren't the safest ones to fly because they, the government, was only interested in the best safety for people on the ground. Now if you look at it, for many decades, you go back to the 40s and you find that all the research flight testing done up here in this desert, there's been hundreds of accidents with research airplanes, but nobody's ever been hurt on the ground. So why would you compromise the safety of the test pilot in order to make it more safe for people on the ground?

REASON: Let me read you something from a recent interview in Wired magazine with [then NASA Administrator] Sean O'Keefe. He's addressing the SpaceShipOne launch, and says yes it was amazing, "but let's put this in a relative context. Mike Melville went half the altitude that Alan Shepard did, for a fraction of the amount of time, did it 40 years later, and flew in a plastic airplane fueled by laughing gas. From a technical standpoint, this was a modest objective, except for one major point: They did it themselves. It's like a bunch of guys doing this in their garage."

BR: And what he didn't say is that we developed three new breakthrough technologies which will allow us immediately to launch a commercial spaceline industry in which people can fly at the same safety level of the early airlines. What Alan Shepard flew in was an expendable booster with a parachute recovery, and for 44 years of NASA manned space flight, they have not made significant improvements in concepts that will allow safe access to space.

REASON: For those interested in space policy, it seems like there were two camps when the question was—what's the biggest barrier to private space exploration? Some people said it was a regulatory, government-imposed barrier, and others said it was a perception barrier, that people could not imagine a small group of people doing what you did. How do you see it?

BR: People may interpret the regulatory barrier as the government won't let you fly something that is safe enough to fly. That's what people may think the regulatory barrier is, and I want to make it very clear that that's not my opinion at all, and this is true with airplanes, too. The regulations for light planes, which is called Part 23, there isn't anything there [that doesn't let] you fly something that otherwise should be safe. In fact, if you make an airplane that just barely makes Part 23, it'll be a lousy airplane that in my opinion is not very safe.

But it's a process that [involves] working with na?ve, and sometimes inexperienced, regulators who won't make a quick decision, so it drags your program out. I don't see anything in the regulatory rules that's restrictive. I think it's too early to regulate because they don't know what new ideas will come out. For example, if you assume that something is like a V-2 Rocket or something is like a Mercury Redstone, you can regulate that, and they have been regulating things like that for 10 years under the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. However, for them to apply those rules for something that flies to space like an airplane does not work. So they can't sit down and write regulatory rules for things that will happen in the future because you can't know what's going to happen in the future.

I have a solution for that, and that's what I'm working on right now. The developer himself [should] define the testing that is needed for his system to show that it is safe, and he negotiates that test plan with the FAA, and they approve the fact that he did it. I think that it's the only way to do it. You can't regulate spaceships like you can airplanes because every one of them is different.

REASON: Let's talk about the possible job creation effect of the private space flight industry. Because you look at, for example, the Wright brothers. They couldn't have anticipated professions like airport manager or flight attendant, and yet today the aviation industry employs millions of Americans.

BR: When people think of the Wright brothers they think of 1903. I think a more important thing to look at when you make the point you're making is 1908 to 1911, early 1912. We're talking about only a three and a half year time period that started when only 10 people had flown, and ended three and a half years later when thousands of pilots flew hundreds of airplanes in 39 countries.

Those people were doing it just for fun because they weren't developing airliners yet, developing the World War I airplanes yet, or even the mail planes yet. What happened later were the applications, but people wanted to fly. People the world around wanted to fly with a barnstormer, people wanted to go to air shows and see them do loop-the-loop. You know, this is all kind of fun.

Go back to 1977 when you could first buy an Apple computer. This was a big deal that people could have computers, but the personal computer was mainly for fun. Most people used them for games, and balancing our checkbook with a personal computer really wasn't why we bought personal computers. I mean, people said, well that's why we need them, but if you think about it, until we had the Internet, we didn't know what computers were really for. Now it's our communication, it's our commerce, it's our—everything.

I like to think that's what suborbital space tourism is; it's going to be a big industry. Just like personal computers. But it's mainly just for fun.

You've got to have thousands, tens of thousands, of people enjoying it in order to figure out what to do with it. We never would have invented the use of the Internet, the communication, and the commerce, and everything if you had just a few dozen people with computers. So I look at this suborbital phase that we'll go through, and I think we'll always have suborbital space flight, but I think the main thing is, is that people are going to flat enjoy it. And it's going to be absolutely thrilling. They're going to be floating their bodies around big cabins. It's not going to be just like the SpaceShipOne flights. There's going to be a lot more things you can do for the experience.

To answer your question, I think it's going to be a huge industry. And it's going to be competitive very early in the game, and ticket sales will come down to the point where hundreds of thousands of people will fly.

REASON: And I think the concept of fun you mentioned is hugely important and at NASA it's very different—they can't justify something on the basis of fun.

BR: No, and they don't understand the concept of taking risks in order to find breakthroughs. I hate to say that because we send billions to them for what we think is research but they don't do research, they only do development. They won't reach out and look for new concepts.

The same thing is happening with this Bush initiative, the Crew Exploration Vehicle. NASA's going to award multi-billion dollar contracts in September for the primes, and the primes are going to go out and they're going to fight to make sure that they win the next phase after spending billions, and because of that, they're not going to try new, innovative stuff. They're just going to just build some new capsules, and they're going to get launched by expendable boosters, and they won't go out and solve the safety problems that are preventing us from having resort hotels in orbit.