March 16, 2005

Interview With the Visionary

The Sunday Times (UK) ran a profile/interview of Burt Rutan on March 13, 2005 (found via X-Prize Space Race News).

Mr. Rutan comes across like a character out of an Ayn Rand novel (and I mean that in a good way):

Apollo 17 landed on the moon on December 11, 1972, and thereafter the US space effort ground to an undignified halt. Nasa invested in the Space Shuttle, the ugliest and most pointless machine ever built. They told the US government it would be 10 times cheaper to put payloads in space with the shuttle than it had been with Apollo’s Saturn V rocket. In fact, it turned out to be 10 times more expensive....

“You can’t fix it by throwing money at it,” says Burt, “because you make something that’s bad because it’s too complex even more complex.”

On top of all that, Nasa, having become an insanely defensive bureaucracy, went out of its way to crush all opposition both within and without. Any rival trying to get into space more safely and cheaply was either absorbed or drained of cash and talent. With the collapsing Soviet Union all but dropping out of the space race, and China just clinging onto a precarious toehold, the whole extraterrestrial adventure seemed to be over. A sci-fi generation, now in their fifties and sixties, realised that their childhood dream of roaring rockets taking them up to wheeling orbital space stations and beyond was dead.

Burt made sure that Nasa only heard about his project at the same time as everybody else — when he wheeled SpaceShipOne out on the tarmac at Mojave to be photographed by Aviation Week. He points out sadly that, but for Nasa, we’d be holidaying in orbital if not moon-based hotels already. He has no faith in George Bush’s new decision to spend the next 20 years going back to the moon and then on to Mars, because it uses the same old dumb technology and keeps the government monopoly intact. But it doesn’t matter, because Nasa won’t survive the next 20 years. Burt thinks it is about to be wiped out by a sudden space explosion in the private sector. And so now, at 61, he expects to live long enough to see the first moon resorts.

According to the author, the first flight into space aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship should take place in about three years and contain some interesting characters:

It will carry — and this is very informed guesswork — William Shatner and Sigourney Weaver. Shatner is the favourite, as he will officially name the ship the VSS Enterprise. So both Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise and Ripley of Alien have signed up to pay $200,000 (just over £100,000) for the trip, but they don’t yet know who will be on the first flight. If Ripley has anything to do with it, there will certainly be a giant, homicidal lizard. Victoria Principal, the former Dallas star, has also signed up. Burt and Sir Richard Branson will be on board, as, I think, will Branson’s dad, Ted. Bill Cullen, the 63-year-old chairman of Renault Ireland, might be there too; he’s the only one of the 21,000 applicants for tickets who has paid the whole sum upfront....

I can't do the interview justice with excerpts, so go read the whole thing.

Posted by JohnL at March 16, 2005 10:16 PM
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