A Giant Leap for Burt Rutan


By Christopher Palmeri

Up and Down with SpaceShipOne:

This Photo Essay from June, 2004,

explains how the revolutionary

craft soars and lands

Burt Rutan isn't one to mince words. Just minutes after the world's first privately funded spacecraft touched down at the Mojave (Calif.) Airport on Oct. 4, Rutan, who created the machine, had this to say to the aerospace Establishment: "The Boeings (BA) and Lockheeds (LMT) of the world probably thought we were a bunch of home builders. I think they're looking at each other right now and thinking, 'We're screwed!'"

Forty-seven years to the day after the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite began the Cold War-era race to the moon, Rutan's SpaceShipOne became the first commercial craft to complete two trips into space within 14 days. Designed and built in three years, at a cost of under $25 million, SpaceShipOne carried a pilot and the weight equivalent of two additional passengers. Over the course of a 90-minute flight it reached a height of more of than 367,000 feet, stats that helped it clinch the $10 million Ansari X Prize, an award created specifically to spur space tourism.

TICKET TO RIDE. Both Rutan and the Ansari X Prize's creator, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, see the five-foot tall award, which will be presented at a gala in St. Louis on Nov. 6, as just the beginning of private industry's efforts to send everyday people into orbit. They envision a second space race, with dozens of startups competing to provide what will ultimately become regularly scheduled flights beyond the earth's atmosphere.

"Guys, start investing," Diamandis said at a press conference after the Oct. 4 flight. "The market is here. Sixty percent of the population wants to travel to space."

British businessman Richard Branson has already taken him up on that offer, signing a deal a week earlier for Rutan to build a craft for Branson's new space-travel company, Virgin Galactic, with a goal of launching its first flights by 2007. Rutan, a scrappy, sideburn-wearing aircraft designer, and the billionaire Branson vowed to be among the first two passengers on what will be a five-passenger spacecraft.

DON'T STOP NOW. But Branson won't be alone in turning to Rutan for help. "The technology is available for license," says Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Paul G. Allen, who provided all of the money for SpaceShipOne and remains Rutan's partner in their Mojave Aerospace Ventures Team. "We're talking to other potential investors."

Diamandis also wants to keep up the momentum, especially among the 25 other teams that competed for the Ansari X Prize. He has raised $10 million from the state of New Mexico, which will serve as the host state for the X Prize Cup.

Diamandis says at least six additional competitions will be held over the next couple of years, including battles for the highest altitude and most passengers carried. "One student suggested we do one for the coolest-looking plane," Diamandis said, "and we may."

STAR TRAILS. His St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation announced two additional sponsors on Oct. 4. They are International Fuel Technology, a maker of cleaner-burning fuel additives, and 7-Up, which will be offering a free ticket to space, most likely through a find-the-winning-ticket-on-the-can promotion. Kelli Freeman, 7-Up's marketing director, says contest details will be unveiled next year.

But 7-Up already had a tag line: "The only way to go is Up!" Diamandis says he's also looking for a major media company to sponsor a reality show about the X Prize Cup competition.

Rutan, aerospace industry veteran who has helped design over 40 planes, previously attracted worldwide attention when he designed the Voyager, a plane that his brother, Richard, and co-pilot Jeana Yeager, flew around the world without refueling in 1986. Rutan said one drawback to the Voyager flight was that it had nothing left to do after its mission was accomplished. "The difference now is we have only begun," Rutan says.

Those are path-blazing words from a maker of aviation history. Palmeri is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau


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