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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedRutan: Opportunities best for commercial space flight
By Barbara A. Schmitz

Aerospace engineer Burt Rutan talks about the future of space flight during a forum on Thursday.

The space program was taking off when Burt Rutan was a child, and that's all it took for his interest to take off, too.

Decades later, with private companies taking the lead in transporting civilians to space, Rutan hopes the interest of today's children will, once again, blast off.

Rutan presented "Commercial Space: Our Future Opportunities" during a packed forum Thursday. He said opportunities are available in the growing private space industry.

"How many of you have bought tickets to fly outside the atmosphere?" Rutan asked the group. No hands went up.

"We're on the road to develop a system that I expect will have a lot of volume," he said. "If I come back 10 years from now, I predict that I will get at least 100 of you in this audience to raise your hand. That's an enormous thing to expect, but I want to go to a resort hotel in orbit sometime in my lifetime. We're doing what we can do this year to help that happen."

In fact, Scaled Composites has been growing rapidly, with the company tripling its size during the recession. "But we need more people to build spaceships in the shop and more engineers," Rutan said. "We will need to increase the size of our company 15 to 20 percent this year."

Technology goes through cycles, as products build and then fade when new ones replace the old, Rutan said. "It doesn't build at all if it is developed and used by the government," he said. "But once it is handed off to the private sector, something very different happens."

Not only will the demand grow, but the price will also come down, Rutan predicted, and you attract new investors who realize the potential the industry holds.

To predict the future, you first need to understand the history of space exploration. It began, in earnest, about 50 years ago when the U.S. government was in a race with the USSR, he said.

"America accelerated its efforts to do good things in space and to regain its national prestige," Rutan said. "The world was looking at our adversary as being technologically better than us. And in those days that meant something to Americans, and it meant a lot to American leadership."

The United States succeeded in its efforts. It developed five different launch systems in seven years. The United States made nine missions to the moon, six that landed on the lunar surface.

"We took enormous risks," Rutan said. "But somewhere along the line, risks became unacceptable, and that stifled ingenuity."

More recently, the government canceled Orion/Ares, a move that Rutan supports. "The biggest problem I had with it is that it used steel-case solid rockets off the shuttle," he said. "This whole program was developed and designed and laid out specifically…without learning anything new.

"When we went to the moon the first time, we learned a lot of new stuff," Rutan said. "If we're spending money to develop a shuttle, we ought to learn something to help us get to Mars."

Rutan said NASA should give 10 to 15 percent of its budget to new space companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX without regulating how to spend the money. "That would allow them to not (have to) beg for commercial investment, while still working in an entrepreneurial mode."

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