Monday, Apr. 18, 2005

Burt Rutan

Space is a lot of things, but it isn't democratic. Fewer than 500 people have orbited Earth. I am one of only 24 astronauts to have journeyed to the moon, a number that hasn't changed in 33 years. When someone figures out a way to open up a frontier that has long been closed, we have truly turned a technological page. That person is Burt Rutan, 61, designer of SpaceShipOne, the first successful private spacecraft.

SpaceShipOne, which made its inaugural flights in 2004, was a long time in coming — more than 75 years by some lights. In the 1920s, when pilots competed to be the first to make a nonstop crossing of the Atlantic, they did so not just for glory but also to capture the $25,000 Orteig Prize, offered to whoever made the unprecedented trip. Charles Lindbergh got to cash the check.

In 1996, the $10 million X Prize was offered to spark similar competition to build a reusable spacecraft that could carry passengers safely across the threshold of space — about 62 miles up — and repeat the mission a second time within two weeks. On Oct. 4, Rutan's SpaceShipOne achieved that goal and earned that check.

SpaceShipOne was backed by Microsoft mogul Paul Allen, so money wasn't a problem. But you can't buy brilliance like Rutan's. Head of aerospace-design firm Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., he designed the Voyager aircraft that made the first nonstop flight around the world in 1986 and the GlobalFlyer aircraft that recently made the first such flight with a solo pilot. But it was SpaceShipOne that truly soared.

Lovell flew Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon

From the Archive
The Sky's the Limit: Ingenious design. Entrepreneurial moxie. A world-changing vision of the future. The amazing SpaceShipOne has it all