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My report on a presentation given at the Udvar-Hazy Center

On March 11, 2005, I attended a program at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center thanking volunteers for their efforts at the museum. The event featured food and drink, primarily located in the McDonnell Space Hall, and over 500 people were there. The largest group was museum docents, although there are many other ways to help at The Air and Space Museum, if you are interested. I participate in the Discovery Station program, and I recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys talking about space or air to the public.

Word had it that more people were attending than could fit in the IMAX theater, so I made an effort to get lined up early. This paid off in a seat right near the front. After a quick review of how much effort the volunteers had put in (about 33 person-years) and a bit about the museum's year itself, Mr. Burt Rutan, the winner of the 2005 National Air and Space Museum Trophy, was introduced.

His talk was less technical than I would have liked, but that's not a real measure of anything. He focused instead on the fact that he hoped we were now in a "space renaissance" similar to the "air renaissance" that took place in 1908. In the year 1908, there were only 5 trained pilots in the world, and there were fewer airplanes. In that year, however, when the Wright Brothers' airplane was flown in Paris, a fundamental shift took place in people's minds. Of course, for some that mindset shift was "we've been beaten by two guys who own a bicycle shop," but for others the change was "If they can do this, I can do this." It was this revelation that led Glenn Curtis, then a motorcycle manufacturer, to try his hand at building aircraft, and it's Glenn Curtis' models that brought about the shape of aircraft that we're familiar with today. Because of the "I can do this" mentality, hundreds if not thousands of new ideas in aircraft were tried. Many of these new ideas were destined to fail, but others were revolutionary enough to move air travel forward. By 1913, thousands of people were pilots, and there were hundreds of airplanes around the world.

By building and flying SpaceShipOne, Burt Rutan hopes to have made a lot of people think "I can do this space travel thing."

Next, he discussed casualty rates during early phases of aviation and compared them to casualty rates for the crewed spaceflight effort so far. He pointed out that, despite all the talk about safety in our space program, the death rate for astronauts so far has been 4.2%, compared with 3.5% casualties in early, unregulated, daredevil-style aviation. He attributes part of this to the fact that, whenever a new, more complicated technology came around, the American space program would jump on it, never flying the old technology that they'd used before again. The samples of this showed Redstone (the small rocket used to launch Al Sheppard and Gus Grissom to their 15 minutes of fame) leading to Atlas (that launched John Glenn and the rest of the Mercury 7 astronauts), leading to Titan II, etc. His question to the audience was "What if we'd kept Redstones around while we flew the more complicated vehicles? Odds are we'd know how to fly them very well now and they'd be pretty cheap." The argument is simplistic, of course, because the early ballistic flights of Mercury exposed their passengers to some of the highest G-loading of any astronaut, with Al Sheppard experiencing 11 Gs, but there's no reason to assume that some sort of modified capsule couldn't have decreased the stresses on its pilot or passenger.

The next idea he discussed was the technology curve, when a new capability is developed and how it stays level for a time, until innovation provides the spark and allows it to grow rapidly. Curves included car travel and early air travel among others. Examples of sparks on those curves according to his charts were mass production enabling cars to be built cheaply, and the DC-3 allowing cheap air travel. One interesting point of this discussion was the "Greyhound Bus Effect," after a technology matures and is superceded by another, there is still a lingering demand for the service it provides, despite its being "outdated." The argument went on to say that the next curve, after jet air travel, was overdue. Mr. Rutan believed that a curve would have developed if a competitor came about for the Concorde supersonic transport, but that's an alternate history best left to science-fiction writers.

As far as space travel goes, he believed that the US and Russia could have kicked off a competitive spiral of space development if the US had continued to fly Apollo vehicles to compete with Soyuz. Instead, the US chose to stop flying Apollo completely and spend time instead building the space shuttle.

He went on to describe the generalities of his next design, prohibited from going into too much detail. Each passenger will have an 18" window (presumably with handles on either side) to look out while they're at the top of the arc, although he believes that the greater interest is going to be for the approximately 4-minute-long zero-G experience. He pointed out that he feels it's quite important that everyone have the option of floating around the cabin when they can, rather than being strapped down into their seats throughout the flight. For me, this statement, combined with his answer to my question described later, makes for a couple rows of low-lying seats that, once the boost phase ends, are folded back to align with the G-forces coming on reentry. This would also create an interesting opportunity for pre-flight "drills" where customers have to practice getting out of their seats, folding them back and then getting back into them in a parabolic training flight before flying on SS2.

He took a moment to say that he doesn't know how to get people into orbit and back down safely yet, although in the past I'd seen him displaying a SS1-style craft atop a rocket, presumably heading into orbit.

From initial tourism flights into sub-orbit, he sees orbital flights following soon thereafter, following the same rapid development curve that's taken place so many times in the past. Once flights into orbit start, there will be a need to stay in orbit for a period of time, which will bring about space hotels. He stated that he's partial to an architecture favoring two hotels close to each other, so that one can help the other out in case of trouble. He also proposed the idea of having one station rotate to provide gravity for its guests, while the other be non-rotating, allowing a zero-G experience.

When he said he'd take questions, I scrambled to a microphone, asking about the G-forces that passengers would experience on flights aboard the up-and-coming SpaceShipTwo. He stated that the G-forces would be the same as the ones experienced by the pilots of SS1, and that passengers would be supine (laying down relative to the G loads) during the entry. According to him, this position would allow nearly anyone in decent health to comfortably experience the short-term 5 Gs expected.

My favorite moment came when the old-world philosophy crashed with his ideas. During the question and answer session, a lady thanked him for his presentation, and then said that he needed to take it on the road to inspire school children around the country. He thought for a moment and then said that no, he wouldn't take the show on the road because that would mean that he wasn't building hardware to do more amazing things. The philosophy continued saying that as long as he does amazing things, the media will spread the word of what he's done, and if anyone should be taking the message he's spreading out to schoolchildren, it should be people like us, docents, teachers and the like. I'm guessing that a sensitive person would find that statement somewhat offensive, but of course there are people who'd find something to be offended by in any statement.

He ended his talk by relating a story of a trip he took to Marshall Spaceflight Center, where a group of original rocket scientists, the Peenemunde engineers who worked under Werner Von Braun (and acknowledging the obvious, which someone will probably point out to me if I don't, Adolf Hitler) to build the world's first ballistic missile. Mr. Rutan was being filmed for a documentary that he doesn't believe will get shown on TV. After meeting with the ex-patriot Germans, he was taken to an auditorium where there were a bunch of applicants that weren't accepted for the educator-astronaut program. I have met some of these applicants myself at a conference, and apparently, since they met some sort of cut within the application process, NASA wants to keep them interested in space and occasionally sends them to conferences and events of interest. As Burt spoke to them, he was inspired to say "So none of you are going to fly on the shuttle? How about we figure out a way so that you all can fly on one of my craft?"

The evening ended with a standing ovation for Mr. Rutan, and I believe it was well deserved. We'd just spent a couple hours with a man who, with his small company and a private backer, built the first non-governmental crewed spacecraft.

I hope to one day fly on one of his creations, and view the Earth's curvature firsthand.

The Updated Past, Present and Possible Futures of Space Activity