Friday, November 10, 2006

Space Visionaries Rutan, Diamandis, And Allen Enter Aerospace Hall Of Fame.

The San Diego Air & Space Museum (SDASM) honored three visionary space pioneers at the inaugural presentation of the 21st Century of Flight Distinguished Achievement Award on Saturday, November 4th. Gerry Williams of The Mars Society San Diego (here) attended and provides these observations and photographs. (View photos here in folder labeled "Hall of Fame Ceremony.")

With the unveiling of the full-size Spirit of St. Louis replica back from its 2003 flight and restoration by SDASM Gillespie Field volunteers, the International Aerospace Hall of Fame Gala Celebration kicked into high gear. The event celebrated both the beginnings of commercial flight and looked forward to the future of commercial space flight. More than 400 people attended.

Three new honorees were inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame for the 20th Century: United Airlines' "Pat" Patterson; TWA's Jack Frye, and Russia's Sergei Ilyushin, whose stories were told on video using vintage footage and photos as their portraits were unveiled. Patterson's and Frye's families accepted the honors.

The inaugural presentation of the 21st Century of Flight Distinguished Achievement Award went to three visionaries of today: SpaceShipOne financier Paul Allen (who was unable to attend) took the first award, accepted by the museum on his behalf.

XPrize Foundation creator Dr. Peter Diamandis took the second award. He encouraged donations to the new Hall of Fame Engineering Scholarship program to help increase America’s engineer graduation rate. In addition to space exploration, he says the XPrize Foundation encourages innovation in other areas of worldwide importance, such as fuel efficient automobiles and human genetics. Ansari Prize financial backer Anousheh Ansari reinforced these sentiments in a "filmed on location in space" video aboard the International Space Station recently, praising the XPrize Foundation as the best way to preserve our planet while simultaneously exploring beyond it.

The final 21st Century of Flight Distinguished Achievement Award recipient and keynote speaker was Burt Rutan. SDASM board member Mark Larson noted that, "While some strive to think outside the box, Burt Rutan simply never acknowledged the existence of the box.”

Rutan spoke about taking risks as human beings, and how we now seem to be living in a country that is becoming ever more risk-adverse (averse -ed). He additionally commented, semi-directly to the two tables of student aerospace engineering students from SDSU and UCSD, on how few aerospace engineers are graduating in the United States these days compared to how many are graduating in the same field from China and India and other nations.

In Rutan's (and my) day, there was the thrilling challenge of taking existing missile technology and building it into something that could carry humans into outer space. Today, in comparison, our country is talking about heading back to the Moon, Mars and beyond, but without trying to learn a different way of doing it -- by using "Apollo on Steroids" to accomplish it. Rutan fears a “dumbing down” of the new generation.

Rutan talked with the tables of recent graduates before the event, and none of them could give a good solid answer as to why they became aerospace engineers (unlike the heady Apollo days when EVERYONE could tell you) -- if he’d’ve asked me, the answer would be simple: I want to go to Mars!

SpaceShipOne was not just about proving that a non-governmental group could build and launch spaceships. It was about creating technological breakthroughs necessary for public access to space. Most of the public can't afford going into space by way of governments (with Russia being the only government presently selling tickets), so SpaceShipOne was about taking the risks and doing things differently.

Rutan spoke in the SDASM's Pavilion of Flight, and he repeatedly looked overhead at the Museum's Ford Trimotor aircraft, one of the first passenger planes. His father told him at a young age that this aircraft was for rich people only, and that he would probably never get to fly in one.

SpaceShipTwo, a fleet of five now under construction, will take the lessons learned here and apply them to industrializing public space access with a fleet of eventually 100 vehicles, each carrying up to 11 passengers on their suborbital treks. Yes, rich people will be the first passengers, but with stiff competition and low operating costs Rutan says that eventually millions of us will be able to journey into the black sky.

The 2006 International Aerospace Hall of Fame Gala Celebration was an inspiring evening of achievements and dreams, both fulfilled and still on the drawing boards and in the imaginations of human beings everywhere. I'm glad I had the opportunity to attend.

-Gerry Williams

Republished once to correct typos.

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