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Rocket Man

Aviation legend and convention-buster Burt Rutan leads the charge among civilians out to claim the point position on manned spaceflight. Will such barnstormers of space supplant NASA?

By Bruce V. BigelowContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 2004

The high desert 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles was once the bottom of an ancient sea. Today highways run arrow-straight through the desolate terrain, past crooked Joshua trees that stand like sentinels. At an airport near the old mining town of Mojave, rows of mothballed jetliners bake in the desiccating heat.

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In vivid contrast, the Mojave Airport also offers a window on the future. Here sit the Civilian Flight Test Center and some of the most advanced aircraft in the world. For more than 60 years, the real attraction of this place has been the azure dome overhead, where a flier can see for 30 miles, 360 days a year. It is pilot heaven, home of Edwards Air Force Base, and the birthplace of the sonic boom.

Mojave also is home to Burt Rutan. In a world that celebrates test pilots and fighter jocks, Mr. Rutan has attained his own special status as one of the nation's most visionary aircraft designers.

To the public at large, Rutan is best known as the creator of Voyager, the willowy plane that hangs in the lobby at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The propeller-driven aircraft made aviation history in 1986, flying nonstop around the world on a single tank of gas.

To aviation enthusiasts, Rutan is renowned for creating designs that marry lightweight materials with sophisticated ideas. His home-built craft have set new standards for speed, distance, and fuel economy.

Now 60, the crusty engineer with the trademark muttonchops is poised to again seize the public imagination by applying his do-it-yourself approach in a quest for space - one that deliberately excludes NASA. And even as Washington dreams - one year after the loss of Columbia - about moon bases and missions to Mars, some experts maintain that it is private individuals like Rutan who will shape the race for the final frontier.

Bankrolled by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, Rutan plans to send three civilian test pilots in a rocket plane to the threshold of space. By making the subor- bital flight to an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) twice within two weeks, Rutan hopes to win the $10 million X Prize, an international contest created by a group of space enthusiasts eight years ago. The idea was modeled after the contest with a $25,000 purse that spurred pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh to prove in 1927 that it was possible to fly a plane alone across the Atlantic.

Rutan not only wants to set records and make history, but also to shatter conventional notions about the near-impossibility of private ventures sending ordinary folks into space.

"He's motivated by a desire to be different and startling as much as anything else," says Peter Garrison, a contributing editor at Flying magazine who has known Rutan for 30 years. "He's certainly the most prolific and imaginative designer of his time."

Mindful of his role on the global stage, Rutan wants to show that he has developed the world's first private program for manned spaceflight - and then hand the keys to a new generation of pioneers he calls "the barnstormers of space."

His vision of the future of space travel includes a visceral antibureaucratic streak that Rutan expresses with blunt candor. He has emphasized that his space program, which cost an estimated $25 million, has used no government money and relied on no government labs.

"We have no government customers and no government technical interface," he told a group of test pilots in Los Angeles in September. "That's fun."

When Rutan first unveiled his experimental spacecraft for the public last April, he also was, consciously or unconsciously, conjuring up the lost gonzo spirit of the Right Stuff.