CSU Voices and Views

The New Space Race

By Burt Rutan
Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Scaled Composites
Alumnus of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

Rutan standing in front of White Knight, the aircraft used to launch the SpaceShipOne

Rutan standing in front of White Knight, the aircraft used to launch SpaceShipOne

Despite what someone might expect, I cannot think of anything more exciting and fulfilling than spending more than 40 years working in the Mojave Desert.  I mean, what better job could someone have than imagining an airplane shape, component or instrument that has never existed before and then actually seeing the thing fly.

I am constantly awed at the scores of aircraft designs we came up with at Scaled Composites.  Working with some of the most creative minds in the business, Scaled Composites finally broke through the boundaries of commercial aeronautics with the suborbital flight of SpaceShipOne.  We became the first privately owned organization in space.  Amazing.

I was able to make a career out of a passion I had as a kid.  I started out building simple kit-based airplanes, increasingly getting into designs and builds that were more complex.

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo built on my passion and let me continue to explore and do new things.  At that time, there was even a runway on campus that would allow us to take our classroom projects and test-fly them.  The hands-on experience culminated in a senior project that allowed me, and my classmates, to explore any aeronautical engineering problem and develop our own solutions.

As a little context, I should probably mention that I graduated with a bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering from Cal Poly in 1965 – a decade into the US/USSR space race.  National pride, and a palpable concern about militaristic use of space, had driven a sense of urgency in our political and scientific community.  People were willing to take risks and do new things.  This was a time of real research.  My definition of real research: at least half the people in the room have a serious doubt that what you are trying will work.  This type of research is really the only way to move the technology forward – otherwise you are just improving on a known design.

This national environment of new research drove my Cal Poly peers and me into fields of science, technology, engineering and math.  The academic ranks in these fields grew and not just in aviation and engineering.  All sorts of disciplines fed into the American desire to explore space.  The days of humans traveling the solar system seemed within reach.

In many ways, America was fortunate to start from behind in the space race.  Sputnik focused our national attention, resources and abilities in a way unparalleled in the history of technology – at least prior to the recent computing explosion that followed the creation of the internet.

I worry that as our national attention on space has waned, government-based programs are no longer motivated to take risk and move technology forward.  Our plan to return to the moon seems like a blast from the past.  We are even using 1960s technology.

The hope I see, is that entrepreneurs like Paul Allen and Richard Branson will help open space for all of us.  As private interests take hold in space, a renewed interest and more sustainable space race will begin.  California, and the US as a whole, can be on the front lines of this new space race if, and only if, we inspire and invest in the education of the young people that will build our future.

Note: Rutan is additionally featured in the “Working for California” project that celebrates CSU alumni leaders.

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