Thursday, May 04, 2006

He Wants To Go To The Moon Before He Dies

Burt Rutan spoke during lunch at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles today. He said his goals are to travel to the Moon himself and for his grandchildren to be able to travel to the more interesting moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Apparently for him, humanity is not getting off the planet fast enough.

He started his talk with the statement that it's neither safe enough or affordable enough to send humans to orbit on a commercial basis. In itself, this is not a controversial statement, but he argued in his talk that cheap and affordable travel beyond suborbit will depend on the invention of breakthroughs we can't even imagine now.

For that reason, he said, NASA's plan to develop the Crew Exploration Vehicle and return to the Moon the same way America went there 40 years ago, "makes no sense." NASA's plans will not result in the kind of breakthroughs humanity needs to make space travel beyond suborbit cheap and affordable enough for ordinary people. As he explained, if Apollo-type programs could make space travel accessible to everybody, it would have happened in the 40 years since. But it hasn't.

Rutan's main point was about the power of believing in things that aren't proven to drive human progress. For example, he believes suborbital flight can be made safe and affordable and he is setting out to prove it. He also believes that space flight beyond suborbit can be safe and affordable but he says he can't prove it. Proving it is waiting for somebody else who believes it and who thinks he or she knows how. In his view, large companies --- he cited Boeing as an example --- don't believe that spaceflight can be safe and affordable and so they won't be on the cutting edge of making it happen. They'll come in later when somebody else proves it.

As for commercial spaceflight now, Rutan argued a serious flaw in FAA's new regulations is they are based on the premise that suborbital space flight is dangerous. In his view, the FAA's regulations should aim at making suborbital flight safe. The new regulations have the wrong focus for that. Rather than focusing on protecting the uninvolved public, the regulations should focus on protecting paying passengers. To him, the uninvolved public runs a very low risk of being injured by commercial suborbital flight while paying passengers and crew run the highest risk.

Rutan recognized the FAA's dilemma in trying to regulate a technology for safety that is so new we don't yet know how to make it safe. Perhaps in jest, he suggested that rather than regulating the technology, the FAA identify the people involved in making suborbital vehicles and require them to launch their own children before they sell tickets to the public.

Rutan saw signs for optimism regarding future investment in commercial spaceflight. He said that the $1 billion committed to spaceports, when there are no spaceships flying yet, suggests there is money available for investment. He predicted that in about 12 to 15 years, private space investment will equal about half of what NASA spends but will be 10 to 20 times more efficient. When that happens, he said, "everything will change."


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