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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 September 2004, 08:03 GMT 09:03 UK
Rutan ready to realise vision
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online science and technology staff

As the first X-Prize flights go ahead, BBC News Online asks SpaceShipOne's Burt Rutan to explain his motivation and vision.

The Moon
Rutan was drawn to the back of the Moon (Photo: Tom King/Galaxy)
One might think that a man who dreams of opening up space to the holidaymaking public would have had his imagination fired as a boy by science fiction novels.

But Burt Rutan, 61, has only ever read one sci-fi book: Carl Sagan's Contact.

A child of the mid-50s, his strongest memory was Wernher von Braun's collaboration with Walt Disney.

The German physicist drove most of the US space programme's achievements until his death in 1977, and made three popular space films for Disney TV between 1955 and 1957.

The films, showing man in space, on the Moon, on Mars, and the "unknown", fascinated the boy Rutan.

"The most exciting thing I saw as a child was this vision of von Braun going to the back of the Moon," he explains to BBC News Online, as he relaxes in his plus-fours and diamond socks in preparation for a round of golf.

"That was the strongest impression of adventure, and I think that was so important because the whole world had that sense of adventure 500 years ago when Magellan made it around the world."

Shortcut into space

As a child, Rutan was also surrounded by a furious debate about possible man-made canals and intelligent life on Mars.

But the message behind the von Braun-Disney films was about selling the idea of space travel to the American public, convincing them of the need for the space race.

Burt Rutan (Image: Scaled Composites)
We didn't have practical model rockets in the 50s. The ones we made were very dangerous and the kids that played with them didn't have all their fingers, and sometimes were blind in one eye
Burt Rutan
Similarly, SpaceShipOne and the other X-Prize contenders are trying to sell the idea that space travel can be prised out of the government's grip and offered to thousands of ordinary folk.

Because of what the "little guys" are trying to do, Rutan envisages affordable space tourism in 10 to 15 years.

Rutan is no "little guy", however. His company, Scaled Composites, is financed by one of the richest men in the world, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

They share a curiosity about the "unknowns" of space. Allen has injected large sums into Seti (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), as well as Scaled Composites.

But when it comes to space, Rutan's passion focuses on the engineering challenges it presents, not ET.

Rocket passion

As a child, he was fascinated with building planes and rockets.

"We didn't have practical model rockets in the 50s.

"The ones we made were very dangerous and the kids that played with them didn't have all their fingers, and sometimes were blind in one eye."

And on 21 June 2004, his ultimate rocket - SpaceShipOne - proved that there was a future for non-governmental space access. And it did not poke anyone's eye out.

So strong is his love of engineering, he was inspired to study the pyramids of ancient Egypt.

Recently, he was misquoted in a magazine interview: he was said to believe aliens built them.

"I told them that I had spent half an hour alone in the King's chamber of the Great Pyramid," Rutan explains. From his engineering perspective, his conclusions differed from what Egyptologists said.

"I just believe that we are yet to learn what technologies they had to assemble these perfectly fitting stones that high up in the King's chamber of the Great Pyramid."

Eye on the sky

Once in awe, Rutan is now somewhat critical of the US space agency (Nasa). In the 1970s, the capability of affordable space flight had been proved, he insists.

But Rutan believes the space agency should have worked the capability harder into a programme in the early 70s, instead of concentrating on beating the Russians to the Moon.

SpaceShipOne on its record-breaking space flight (Image: Scaled Composites)
SpaceShipOne entered the record books in June
In 1961, there were four manned spaceflights in a year, but the race to the Moon took over.

"By 1973, we had a space station, the Skylab, and we had multiple probes going up to planets. So, all this wonderful stuff happened in 10 to 15 years.

"About that time, there should have been enormous initiatives to make it affordable for people to fly in space, not just a handful of trained Nasa astronauts and Russian cosmonauts.

"If you asked Nasa in those days how long will it be until it is affordable so that I can fly, the answer would be, 'we're working on it and it 30 years there will be affordability'."

'Black sky'

He decided instead to dedicate his skills to airplanes. Besides, he was safe in the hope that by the time he was 60, he would be able to buy his ticket to space.

"All of us wanted to fly in space," says Rutan. "When we saw what these astronauts said when they came back from these flights, it just amazed everyone."

Artwork of space tourists floating inside a spacecraft (Image: X-Prize Foundation)
The X-Prize should open the door to space tourism
But, he says, ask the same question of Nasa now and the answer is the same as 30 years ago. Nasa is working on it and it will be affordable in 30 years' time.

"If it is 30 years, I will 90 and will a guy who is 90 get to fly?" To Rutan, the two choices became apparent.

"The first choice was to give up, and admit that I would never go into space, never see that black sky. The other choice I had was to do something about it."

Which is what he did, in secret, in the quiet of the Mojave desert. The result, four years later, was the first private manned spaceship.

"Once thousands are flying into space, they'll look back and ask, 'why did this happen?'

"And what I believe they will conclude is because somebody had the courage to just go out and just see if the little guy with his eye on affordability could actually do this."

As for ET? Rutan hopes there is local life on other planets, because it would be fun to do what holidaymakers do: "interface them".

SpaceShipOne's X-Prize attempts take place on 29 September and 4 October.

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