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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 years following Voyager's flight, Rutan's career soared as Scaled Composites produced scores of startling and imaginative designs for aircraft. The company also developed a wing-type sail for an America's Cup catamaran in 1988, a General Motors Ultralite show car in 1992, and a 40-meter wind-power turbine.

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Rutan also took on a number of military contracts, including "black budget" work - military research done under extreme secrecy - on a 40 percent scale model of the B-2 Stealth bomber. Rutan's company also designed a high-altitude, remotely piloted vehicle for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. It built a 62 percent scale prototype of an advanced transport plane for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"He was a pioneer in the use of composite materials in private aircraft," says Dick Rutan. What defines his brother, he says, is his ability to "dive into his pool of nonsense and chaos" and find the perfect solution way out in a corner someplace.

Today, Burt Rutan has overseen designs for more than 300 aircraft. Forty have been built and flight-tested. But the only Rutan design ever certified by the Federal Aviation Administration is Starship, which was discontinued shortly after Beech entered production. The rest are classified strictly as experimental aircraft designs.

"It would be a waste" to seek certification, says Dick. "He's an innovative, creative designer. Why should he waste all of his time trying to certify an airplane with a bunch of know-nothing bureaucrats?"

As it is, his intensity may have carried a cost. Burt Rutan has been married four times. He had health problems in 1998, and since then only flies with a second pilot seated next to him.

"That really was his own fault," says his brother. "He was just so engrossed in his designs and in running the company that he just gave himself a heart attack. He was drinking about 20 cups of coffee a day, sitting ... in front of a computer, eating tacos, and popping Rolaids."

"Burt can be funny and pleasant and sometimes he can even be modest," says Flying magazine's Mr. Garrison, "[but] he has a big ego and he wants things to go his own way. People who work for him don't always have the most adoring reports."

At the same time, Garrison says, Rutan's health problems "gave him a sense that he has a limited amount of time to establish his place in the firmament. And that's what this [space program] is all about."

It may also be helping to drive his participation in another big-budget project: to build a plane to fly nonstop around the globe with a single pilot - and in a third of the time it took Voyager. Test flown last month, Virgin Atlantic-backed GlobalFlyer was designed by Scaled Composites to loop the earth in 80 hours.

After 10 months, Scaled Composites still has given no indication when SpaceShipOne will attain its ultimate goal in the thermosphere. But Rutan's team appears close - and the timing could provide another, more poignant, contrast for the people who live and work beneath the celestial sphere.

In 1986, after Rutan's Voyager was two or three days into its around-the-world flight, people "started to catch onto the idea that this thing was real," says Norris, "and maybe it's going to happen." It was just before Christmas, the same year in which the shuttle Challenger was lost. "So where the Challenger was a big downer," Norris remembers, "the Voyager turned out to be this big uplifter."

Now Rutan is poised to do it again with SpaceShipOne, just as the nation recalls the loss of Columbia one year ago. If he has his way, his base in this ancient landscape could soon be designated a legal spaceport.

The high desert north of Los Angeles really is a place of vivid contrasts.