Elon Musk has good reason to believe in the space program as a source of inspiration. He himself was sucked into space by Apollo. It’s one thing that all of the space entrepreneurs of this century—individualists and iconoclasts all—have in common: as children, they were enthralled by America’s accomplishments in space.
Burt Rutan, one of the first private space pioneers, was one of them. An aeronautical engineer by training, he started out as a civilian employed by the Air Force before founding his own aircraft company in 1974, specializing in homemade airplane kits. In 1982, he founded Scaled Composites to create aircraft designs. After designing a record-breaking plane that flew around the world without refueling, Rutan and his company went after a loftier goal: to win the Ansari X Prize by sending the first private rocket to carry two people 100 kilometers above Earth twice within two weeks. Rutan accomplished this feat on October 4, 2004, with the backing of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The billionaire joined up with Rutan in a new company called Mojave Aerospace Ventures. Rutan designed a rocket that would be carried by a large airplane (modestly called the White Knight) before igniting its own fuel, thus saving tons of weight. Instead of a parachute, he designed SpaceShipOne in the shape of a badminton shuttlecock, with hinged tails in the rear to slow its descent. The whole project was accomplished by a team of fewer than 50 people and cost a mere $28 million. Rutan bragged that the company developed “an entire manned-space program from scratch—our own rocket motor, our own rocket-test facility, and our own flight simulator for training pilots… with absolutely no help from Nay-Say—excuse me, NASA.”
He had a right to sound cocky. Rutan had a reputation for cheapskate innovations, especially when it came to testing technology. Instead of a wind tunnel for his round-the-world plane, he had tested a model on top of his Dodge station wagon. He proved that cost-cutting could work, in contrast to the enormously expensive Space Shuttle program, with its multiple government contracts pushed by members of Congress in individual districts. The Shuttle had been partially a jobs program. Rutan had something else to prove. After he won the Ansari X Prize, he had his picture taken with a spectator holding a sign that read “SpaceShipOne, Government Zero.”
There was just one thing wrong with that attitude. Like Newton, Rutan was standing on the shoulders of giants—including the NASA rockets that preceded SpaceShipOne.
Admittedly, the catalyst for SpaceShipOne’s dual flight didn’t come from government. The Ansari X Prize was backed by an insurance company, with the $2 million premium paid by Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian immigrant and telecom entrepreneur, along with her brother-in-law. But the idea for the prize came from space entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, founder of a company that makes microsatellites. His inspiration for the prize came in turn from the $25,000 Orteig Prize offered for the first successful flight between New York and Paris. When Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig in 1927, he became a global celebrity. There was talk about running him for president. His achievement inspired thousands of young men and women to go into aviation. One aerospace historian wrote recently, “The prize spawned the $250 billion aviation industry.”
And yet, as you’ve seen, the biggest aviation catalyst, the first big initial boost for an entire industry, came in the form of a turgidly written government contract. As for Peter Diamandis, the man who conceived the X Prize: a champion of private space, he relied on a $100 million Defense Department contract to help launch his company.