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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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At NASA headquarters in Washington, spokesman Michael Braukus calls Rutan's work "phenomenal." But he says the space agency doesn't really have an official position concerning manned spaceflights undertaken by the private sector.

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"What the X Prize is trying to do is stimulate space tourism, and that's wonderful," Mr. Braukus says. But space tourism, he adds, "is not something that NASA's geared toward."

Saying that he is not familiar with the alternative space community or its specific complaints about NASA, Braukus maintains that "what NASA does is high-risk research. That's what we've done since we were founded.... We do things that are dangerous, that deal with exploration, in aviation as well as in spaceflight."

But Rutan's views about NASA have only sharpened with scorn through the years. To Rutan, NASA's culture of denial has led to too many accidents, its technology is too expensive, and its programs have grown - ironically - too risk-averse.

"We seem to be making acronyms for engineering welfare, rather than having the courage to actually fly something," Rutan said last April.

In his presentation for test pilots in Los Angeles last fall, Rutan referred to NASA as "Nay-Say" and promised the brotherhood of fliers that his quest to reach space would create "a whole bunch of new jobs."

"And I mean fun jobs," he said, with another jab at the aerospace bureaucracy, "and not just a job to test the latest software upgrade for the F-18."

Elbert L. "Burt" Rutan was born June 17, 1943, and raised in Dinuba, in California's Central Valley. As the youngest of three children, he paid close attention as his brother Dick, who was five years older, took flying lessons in 1954. Their sister Nell later became a flight attendant for American Airlines, although Dick says she did not share her brothers' fixation.

"Both of us had an abnormal fascination with aviation," recalls Dick Rutan, who would go on to fly 325 combat missions in Vietnam.

"Of course, his particular interest was in the design and structure and the flying products and stuff," adds Dick. "And me, I just wanted to fly."

Dick remembers their mother taking Burt to buy a model-airplane kit, but even then his younger brother didn't want to build planes from a kit. He wanted balsa wood so he could build his own airplanes, "so that was his focus from Day 1."

At 16, Burt soloed in a single-engine Aeronca Champ after logging only five hours and 44 minutes in flight training. He attended California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and graduated with an aeronautical engineering degree in 1965. For the next seven years, he worked as a civilian flight-test project engineer at Edwards Air Force Base.

In 1974, after a two-year stint as test-center director for the Bede Aircraft Co. in Newton, Kan., Rutan returned to Mojave, where he founded the Rutan Aircraft Factory to develop his own designs for the growing market in home-built aircraft.

At the time, home-built aircraft took a lot of metal fabrication and woodworking skills in mini machine shops. Blueprints practically required an engineering degree to read, and there was little text for guidance. But Rutan's small company came on the scene with bold new ideas for aircraft made of lightweight composite materials, and it offered customers an extraordinary level of service and technical support.

In 1975, when the prototype VariEze landed at the annual fly-in convention at Oshkosh, Wis., "it practically caused a mental meltdown," says Dan Patch, a pilot who lives in San Diego. "This amazing little plane just 'dropped in' after flying all the way from California, and proceeded to break the closed-course endurance record for its weight class four days later," says Mr. Patch. "No loud talk, no self-promotion, just, boom, right in front of the world's largest gathering of aviators."