- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007


American engineer Burt Rutan and British tycoon Richard Branson may seem like they come from different planets. Yet the improbable duo are in the same orbit — forming the Spaceship Co. in 2005 to launch ordinary people into space without government help.

One is a secretive aviation legend who made history by designing the first private manned rocket to reach space. The other is a publicity-savvy entrepreneur shooting to take his famous brand literally out of this world.

“You have a billionaire funding a rebel inventor. Putting those two together makes perfect sense,” said space enthusiast Peter Diamandis, founder of the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, who has known both men for nearly a decade.

Mr. Branson, the adventuring chairman of the multibillion-dollar Virgin Group of companies, is investing at least $200 million for a fleet of suborbital passenger spaceships being designed by Mr. Rutan. Mr. Rutan heads Scaled Composites LLC.

Mr. Rutan’s latest effort is based on his SpaceShipOne prototype, a shuttlecock-shaped, hybrid rocket motor-powered craft that became the first private, piloted vehicle to reach space. For the achievement, the project collected $10 million from the X Prize Foundation in 2004.

Since the two teamed up, a rush of do-it-yourself players have angled to break into the fledgling space tourism market. But the polar opposite personalities have grabbed the spotlight, partly because of Mr. Rutan’s track record and Mr. Branson’s aggressive marketing.

How the new space race plays out is being closely watched by space and business experts. There are many unknowns, including long-term business prospects and safety. A single fatal crash, after all, could hobble the infant industry.

Mr. Rutan and Mr. Branson have repeatedly said safety is their main focus. Spaceship Co. is their first venture into space, though they have known each other since 1990 and collaborated on the record-breaking Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer aircraft.

For most of his life, Mr. Rutan, 63, had a single-minded focus on pushing the envelope of experimental aircraft design. Described by some as a genius, he has designed about 40 unique aircraft and now has his sights set on space. He has said he really wants to go to the moon before he dies.

Mr. Branson, 56, is a daredevil flitting between projects. A high school dropout, he built the Virgin empire into a world brand. The Virgin logo is slapped in some of the most terrestrial places — music stores, cell phones, airlines, graphic novels, to name a few. A decade ago, Mr. Branson trademarked Virgin Galactic with the hope of ultimately flying the brand in space.

Their differences don’t end there. They have a different philosophy on publicity.

So far, any announcements on when the first customers might experience zero gravity has been one-sided, with details only trickling from Mr. Branson’s Virgin Galactic camp.

Mr. Branson recently told a trade show in California that construction of the Rutan-designed SpaceShipTwo will be ready within a year, followed by another year of flight tests. If all goes well, Virgin officials say the spaceship will be unveiled by early next year with the maiden commercial launch in 2009.

Mr. Rutan, on the other hand, has been relatively silent. He would only confirm that he is designing SpaceShipTwo and the mother ship aircraft that will launch it. Despite the buzz by Virgin Galactic, Mr. Rutan has not publicly released a schedule for completing work.

Mr. Rutan’s Mojave Desert shop is closed to the public. He doesn’t give tours because he says it’s time consuming and fears proprietary information will be leaked. An exception came last year when a group of Virgin Galactic founders — people who paid $200,000 to experience five minutes of weightlessness — visited. Even that came with strings attached: Each had to sign an agreement promising not to reveal what they had seen or heard.

Tim Pickens, who was the chief propulsion engineer for SpaceShipOne, said employees couldn’t even acknowledge the existence of the top-secret program under Mr. Rutan’s orders.

“He said, ‘Man, we can’t have NASA get a hold of it. There’s no way I can let this program get out,’ ” recalled Mr. Pickens, who now runs his own propulsion company.

Even Mr. Branson, who was funding GlobalFlyer at the time, didn’t find out about SpaceShipOne until 2002 when his deputies visited Mr. Rutan on unrelated business and noticed an odd-looking spaceship in the hangar.

Mr. Rutan faces a different challenge this time around pairing up with the publicity-seeking Mr. Branson.

The sleekly designed Virgin Galactic Web site promises amateur astronauts a spacious cabin to float around in and large portholes to coo at the curvature of the Earth. Initial flights will rocket out of the Mojave and later from a still-to-be-built spaceport in New Mexico where voters earlier this month narrowly approved a tax to support the project.

Absent an actual spaceship to show off, the company last year unveiled a conceptual mockup of the interior featuring reclining seats and spacious windows that excited space bloggers. Mr. Branson was the center of attention as he strapped himself in a seat and gave two thumbs up.

Mr. Rutan was nowhere to be found.

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