Rutan Says Younger Generation Overlooked by NASA, Industry

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Maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan kicked off the 24th International Space Development Conference May 19 with an exuberant, yet pointed presentation chiding NASA and the U.S. aerospace industry for not working hard enough to excite the next generation of space explorers and resting on the laurels of past successes and ideas.

During the conference, put on by the National Space Society (NSS), Rutan received an award for his work and the success in 2004 of his SpaceShipOne project.

Last June, Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, successfully launched the first privately built sub-orbital spacecraft, SpaceShipOne. On Oct. 4, it completed the second of two qualifying flights to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Rutan was presented with the NSS’ Wernher von Braun Memorial Award. The trophy, which includes replicas of von Braun’s earliest spaceship designs, was presented to Rutan by Konrad Dannenberg, a former Apollo program propulsion expert for NASA, as well as one of only a few remaining members of von Braun’s rocket-building team.

In accepting the award, Rutan launched into a criticism of the nation’s current state of spaceflight, apologizing to the audience beforehand lest he insult employees of NASA or prime aerospace industry employees.

“I’m absolutely embarrassed that the average age of those people who have left the atmosphere are as old as I am,” Rutan, 61, told the 300-plus audience. “That is totally wrong.”

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin was in attendance. Rutan called him an inspiration and a friend and said that as a young man in the 1960s, he was “as excited as hell” that the people who made up NASA during that era “had the courage to go somewhere where no human had gone before” by taking risks with often untried and untested rocket technologies such as the Saturn rocket systems.

Risks like those “don’t register with today’s NASA,” he said.

While Rutan said he was optimistic that newly appointed NASA Administrator Mike Griffin might be just what the agency needs to become reinvigorated, he was skeptical that the leading aerospace companies that work with NASA will try revolutionary ideas to implement the agency’s Vision for Space Exploration to go back to the Moon and on to Mars.

Rutan voiced frustration that the big aerospace companies are wasting taxpayers’ time and money repeatedly testing spaceflight technologies that have changed relatively little during the last 40 years.

“If you’re just going to build capsules that are going to go on your expendable boosters, then why don’t you just start doing it on Thursday?” he asked.

Rutan said the public needs not only to be inspired by NASA but also reminded that it has the ability to take chances. “The public is not excited to send money to an agency … that doesn’t have the courage to go back to the Hubble telescope,” he said That comment was rooted in NASA’s decision, so far, to not service the Hubble Space Telescope, which without new batteries and gyroscopes will likely stop working by 2008.

Rutan’s overarching message was that since the end of the Apollo era, progress in human spaceflight technology has become stagnant, with an over-reliance on technologies that are not too different today than they were from their predecessors in the 1960s. Unlike commercial air travel — where growth and innovation changed the look, safety and performance of aircraft during the last 90 years — space innovation has been limited.

As for detractors who point out that the fledgling space tourism industry is offering up only sub orbital joy rides for the wealthy, Rutan was dismissive. There is nothing wrong with doing things for fun, he said , “We don’t know what going to space is ‘good’ for, and we don’t give a damn.”

The goal, Rutan said, is to inspire the next generation of young people to take up the mantles of people such as von Braun, the first U.S. astronauts and those who created the Apollo program.

Rutan vowed to do his part.

“The way I want to inspire kids is to fly to space and let them know that they can, too,” he said.

By ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA