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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?

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In the 1950s, the United States was developing two different ways of launching astronauts into space. One was the Mercury Redstone rocket, a ballistic missile topped by a manned capsule that test pilots back then derisively called "Spam in a can." The other was the X-15, a rocket-powered aircraft carried to high altitude by a B-52 bomber. The X-15 dropped away from the mother ship, the rocket engine ignited in midair, and the pilot aimed for the great yawning void.

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This was the way Chuck Yeager had punched a hole in the sky in 1947 when he broke the sound barrier in the X-1, the ship that was the primogenitor of all the winged rockets that followed.

With the ascendancy of NASA, however, the idea of reaching space in a rocket plane evaporated like a contrail in the sky.

Now Rutan has returned to that path not taken. With no B-52s at his command, he created a stunningly unusual mother ship, the White Knight, to carry his rocket plane and launch it at about 50,000 feet.

The star-spangled rocket plane, SpaceShipOne, has made at least eight flights since last April, when Rutan announced his quest at Scaled Composites, the company he founded in 1982. This lightweight spaceship, made of graphite and epoxy, has short wings and twin vertical tails that flip up to act like a giant air brake, enabling the aircraft to drop like a shuttlecock as it reenters the atmosphere.

After several glide tests, SpaceShipOne broke the sound barrier in its first powered test flight Dec. 17, a milestone that coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight.

As the rocket ship reached near weightlessness at 68,000 feet - the apex of its flight - ground observers heard test pilot Brian Binnie exclaim over the radio, "Wow! That was a wild ride!"

But Rutan isn't ready to step up to the microphones just yet. The rocket man has rebuffed media requests to discuss his work in progress in recent months. Instead, he has burrowed into his Mojave lair, sending strong signs that he won't reappear until he has accomplished the 21st-century equivalent of landing at Le Bourget field.

Even if Rutan is successful, the extent to which private barnstormers could displace NASA's role in the future of manned spaceflight remains uncertain.

Daniel Goldin, the former NASA administrator who got into a rancorous tiff over space tourist Dennis Tito's $20 million ride to the international space station in 2001, professes great respect for Rutan.

"I think Burt Rutan is just one of the great engineers of our time," says Mr. Goldin. "He has done wonderful things. That Voyager, nobody thought it could be done, and Burt pulled it off."

Goldin would not discuss how aerospace entrepreneurs, wannabe tourists, and other space buffs have embraced Rutan's venture.

Still, even the last man to walk on the moon seems to doubt NASA will be the one to send his successor there. In an interview with Australian Broadcasting in 2002, 30 years after his mission, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt spoke of mining the moon as a logical step toward sending humans to Mars.

"There's a lot of engineering, exciting engineering that has to be done to make it possible and economic to do," Mr. Schmitt said. "We need to find a way to create that technology base without asking the taxpayer to do it for us."

Such thinking is what makes Rutan's venture so appealing.

"Burt Rutan's project is huge for the alternative space community," says Greg Klerkx, author of "Lost in Space," a recently published book that describes NASA as a bureaucratic monopoly that strangles private initiatives in its realm.

"For the first time, really, you have the combination of a company with a strong track record in aircraft and spacecraft development paired with significant private backing," Mr. Klerkx explains. "If Scaled Composites is successful with SpaceShipOne, it will be a simple, relatively inexpensive template upon which other vehicles can be built."