Aerospace pioneer and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan on the dawn of private space travel.
The dynamism of the emerging private space industry, with its eye-popping aircraft designs and new approaches to launches, is rejuvenating excitement around space travel. Once monopolized by a budget-busting federal bureaucracy, space travel now has new leaders: wealthy philanthropists with boyhood dreams of spaceflight, and entrepreneurs who believe that they can make money selling tickets to the edge of space.
When Reason first declared the “dawn of private ventures in space” in 1979, we were admittedly off by a number of years. But in the last decade, billionaires such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos have been working through costly failures and lengthy experiments to arrive at workable approaches to commercial spaceflight. In 2019 investors poured a record $5.8 billion into hundreds of space ventures.
“Even though the industry, the world, all the primes, all the governments had concluded that it’s impossible to reuse rocket boosters, [Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos] took enormous risks and try it anyway,” says famed aerospace engineer Burt Rutan. “And you know, they all crashed at first and kept crashing. But wow, they figured it out! And now, by reusing rocket boosters, it changes the entire outlook on what’s going to happen for the public as far as flying in space.”
Rutan, who won the Reason Foundation’s 2019 Savas Award for Privatization, designed SpaceShipOne, the first reusable manned craft to reach space not underwritten by the government. He sat down with Reason Editor-in-Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward to discuss private space flight, his renegade aircraft designs, and why it’s important for mankind to leave Earth. Rutan, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and the rest of the SpaceShipOne team won the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.
“Elon Musk has said that that what he’s doing on rocketry is a hundred times more important than curing cancer,” says Rutan. “If you cure cancer, you save 14 percent of the people. If you can colonize another planet—and humans can learn to survive there—you can save all of us.”
Interview by Katherine Mangu-Ward; Edited and graphics by Meredith Bragg; cameras by Jim Epstein and Kevin Alexander.
Photos: Mark Greenberg/ZUMA Press/Newscom, ARCOCCHI GIULIO/SIPA/Newscom, Paul Hennessy/ZUMA Press/Newscom, SMG/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Blue Origin/Cover Images/Newscom, Yichuan Cao/ZUMA Press/Newscom, Ben Cawthra/Sipa USA/Newscom