By Irene Mona Klotz
in Huntsville, Alabama
The world's most famous living rocketeer is more than a half-century old, but this weekend Burt Rutan was a kid among his heroes - the German engineering team put together by Wernher von Braun.
Rutan was inspired by von Braun's appearances on television
They are white-haired and slow-walking, with hearing aids planted in their ears and their blue eyes dimmed by cataracts.
Only a handful remain of the roughly 120-member team brought to the US from a broken Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.
America, already worried about a new conflict in the atomic age, wanted technical expertise. Von Braun and his team were the perfect spoils of war.
The Germans were eventually settled in Huntsville, Alabama, and given a new mission - create a rocket that could carry man to the Moon. Under von Braun's direction, they did just that.
For von Braun, it was just the beginning.
Rutan sits at the head of table in the archivist's office at the Space & Rocket Center flanked by two members of the von Braun team, Ernst Stuhlinger and Konrad Dannenberg.
They huddle over a hand-written book, penciled by von Braun as a teenager. Rutan wears white cotton gloves, touching the pages tenderly. Stuhlinger provides a translation. It is a plan to go to Mars.
"I consider that document a Rosetta Stone," Rutan says later.
Von Braun helped take America to the Moon
"There von Braun, who has moved up from his amateur rocketry playing, was now at the confidence that these things could be scaled up. In his words, it spoke loud and clear that his passion for rocketry could go to the Moon and to Mars.
"Here he is a teenager, in 1929 or so, talking about what wonderful things we can do in space," he added.
Rutan met von Braun once in person, at a technical conference in San Francisco in 1965. Rutan, who was still a student at the time, found von Braun riveting.
"If I had not seen a picture of him or seen him on Disney television, I still would know who he was when I came into that room. He seemed to stand twice as tall as anyone else and he was surrounded by people who were in awe, including me," Rutan explained.
During a community talk later that evening, Rutan shrugs off comparisons between von Braun and himself.
"I clearly don't think I'm in that league," he said. "But I am not done yet. For me to be compared to von Braun, I've got to go at least to the moons of Jupiter, perhaps to the stars themselves."
Rutan's immediate goal is to see thousands of people fly on suborbital ships. After that, he would like to try to crack some of the technical hurdles posed by orbital spaceflight.
"I've got some ideas, but I don't have all the answers yet," said Rutan, designer and co-owner of the spaceship that won the $10m X-Prize for the first privately developed passenger suborbital ship.
"Mostly what I'm doing though is just having fun," he said.