Burt Rutan on Breakthrough Innovation

No one else starts a talk like Burt Rutan. Then again, no one else has beaten NASA at their own game, building an spacecraft through private investment and winning the Ansari X Prize. His talk at the Idea Festival opens with a video of SpaceShipOne taking off and releasing the space craft to soar into the outer atmosphere. As it comes down to land, a member of the crowd holds up a sign that says, “Space Ship One, Government Zero”.

Burt explains that it wasn’t one of the team’s signs, just one held up by an audience member. But there’s a reason it’s in the video. Just like there’s a reason he refers to an organization called “Naysay” before correcting himself and pronouncing it “NASA”.

Rutan’s focus in this talk is the environment that allows for breakthrough innovation. He argues that breakthroughs help define our species – without them, we get boredom and mediocrity and low expectations for the future. Breakthroughs come from crisis, he believes – a real or percieved threat. Breakthrough innovators are trying to survive (as we might innovate around global warming), to respond to the embarrasment of percieved defeat (the Apollo space program)… or because there’s nothing quite as much fun as having a breakthrough! He believes we’re creative when we’re scared – “we went to the Moon in bad times”, the height of the Cold War and racial tension within the US.

Breakthroughs require confidence in nonsense, and accepting risks that others might not consider acceptable. You get breakthroughs, Rutan believes, by accident when you’re doing something else. We know you can’t get breakthroughs through massive funding – the goal of the space shuttle program was low cost space access, and in those terms, it was an absolutely terrible failure.

Rutan believes that NASA is ill-configured to have breakthrough innovations. If your customer thinks he knows how to do what he’s doing – especially if he thinks he’s smarter than you – you’re not going to give him a breakthrough. Instead, you get breakthroughs by working for a naive customer. In this sense, developing space flight while working for Paul Allen was a dream, because he was ignorant about space flight.

Rutan quotes aircraft designer Wernher Von Braun – “Research is when I don’t know what I’m doing.” When you know what you’re doing, it’s development, not research. He offers a very useful set of tips to be a research manager:

– The manager’s only task is to set the goal and get funding.
– That goal needs to be high – 50% of people shold say it’s impossible
– Reward achievement – prizes are powerful
– Let the innovator decide what risks to take
– Leave them alone, keep others out
– Applaud courage and expect multiple failures
– Allow fun

Rutan’s contempt for NASA comes out when he talks about the Space Shuttle and NASA since 1973. “In 1973, it was reasonable to ask the question, ‘When can I fly?’. The answer would have been ‘it’s really dangerous and difficult, but we’re working on it… it’ll be thirty years.’ Ask the question now, thirty years later, and you’ll get the same answer.” From the first airline flight to the first publicly available flight, there was a 24 year gap. But it’s taken fifty years to go from manned space flight to consumer space flights. “The role of the government is to do the research, then let the private sector go for it.”

Rutan has an interesting argument – which he made in an earlier talk – that innovators are inspired as very young kids, perhaps between three and fourteen years old. In the four years between 1908 and 1912, there was an amazing burst of creativity in air design. The global population of pilots went from 12 to several thousand, with hundreds of new aircraft designs developed in 39 countries. Lots of innovators looked at the Wright Brothers and said, “I can do this – these are just bicycle mechanics from Dayton.”

Burt Rutan’s heroes were young kids in this period of time. The people he points to as inspirations: Howard Hughes, Jack Northrup, Wernnher von Braun, Charles Lindberg – every one was a child during that window of innovation. He shares a memory from his childhood: seeing von Braun on a TV show with Walt Disney, who talked about the plan for going to Mars. He reminds us that Mars was more exciting than it is now – we knew there were canals and plants there… Burt’s inspiration comes from this, and from being a kid at the moment where research aircraft could suddenly go an order of magnitude faster than they had a few years before.

The manned space renaissance – from 1961 – 1973 – was a “wild ride to recover national prestige”. It was made possible, Rutan argues, because we were using “off the shelf missles”. The Russians had an advantage because we were better at making nuclear warheads – ours were smaller, so we needed smaller missles to launch them. Talking about this era of the space program, Rutan tears up thinking about the level of risk people were willing to accept, sending the Saturn V rocket into space with live people on its third flight. He points out that the US government used to scrap launch vehicles as soon as a new, more expensive one was available. The
Redstone gave way to the Atlas to the Titan to the Saturn. “If we did this with airplanes, there’d be only one in the world – the B-2 bomber.”

But after 1973, there was a collapse of innovation, an abandonment of a “genuine search for safe, efficient orbital manned capacity.” Now we’re using Gemini/Soyuz era hardware for orbital work. He marvels that we’re in a space race with the Russians again: “Who would have thought the first folks selling space tickets would be Russia? We’re the capitalists!… It’s weird, it’s backwards and the damned Russians have beat us again.”

Rutan’s goal for SpaceShipOne is safe, affordable suborbital capacity. By being able to go up in a ship like SpaceShipOne, you can see the earth’s curvature – he believes this will inspire development much the same way he was inspired as a child. He admits that this isn’t as sexy as some would like – safe orbital spaceflight requires a breakthrough innovation that no one’s invented yet. Orbital spaceflight on US and Russian aircraft includes a 1 in 60 to 1 in 100 risk of death, similar to climbing Everest. In the first year of scheduled commercial airliners – 1927 – the risk was about one in 5,000. By 1933, when airlines were viable businesses, the risk had fallen to one in 30,000. That’s the risk Rutan is shooting for in sub-orbital space flights. (SpaceShipOne has a major safety innovation – it folds for re-entry, allowing it to approach the atmosphere at something other than a perfect angle of entry…)

SpaceShipTwo – the one being built now – is designed to be comfortable, luxurious, and including big windows. He and partners plan to bring over 100,000 people into space in the first dozen years, flying two flights a day, 11 per flight. He acknowledges that there are critics who say, “Rutan is just enabling joyrides for billionares and eventually joyrides for millionaires.” But he points out that people who bought Apple computers in 1978 were buying something that was cool, but useless. In the 1980s, people bought PCs, which let them do little more than play games. But this enabled the creation of the Internet, and the fact that we now use computers to do everything.

He closes with a slide of SpaceShipOne hanging in the Smithsonian next to the Spirit of St. Louis. He points out that he and Paul Allen didn’t get to go into space because the museum wanted the plane – he plans on going up on the next vehicle.

Several questions wonder whether suborbital flight will make air travel faster or more accessible. Rutan tells us that the technology he’s developed isn’t particularly useful for going far, just for going up. And he offers his speculation that virtual reality is going to get much better in the next few years, meaning we won’t want to go on the business trip to Sydney – we’ll just to the meeting virtually.


This last comment makes me realize how different Rutan’s hopes for the future are from mine. Frankly, I could care less about going into sub-orbital space – if it becomes cheap and safe enough, I can imagine doing it, but it’s not even remotely a priority for me, something I’d need to do before I die. But much faster, cheaper, more accessible air travel is something that would revolutionize the problems I work on, making it far easier for people in different nations to actually see how each other live. To me, at least, that’s a much more interesting problem to solve than making it possible for me to float in space for a few minutes… But hey, that’s why people work on different problems and in different fields.

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5 Responses to Burt Rutan on Breakthrough Innovation

  1. Bill Kerr says:

    Can do attitude plus social awareness is a great combination. Inspiring post, thanks.

  2. quixote says:

    Wow. I can hardly imagine someone who wouldn’t drop everything to race off on a space flight.

    Being the enthusiast I am, I was at the launch where SpaceshipOne first reached suborbital altitudes (before the X Prize flights). (I describe that whole great event here.) I was about 50 people away from the guy holding the “SpaceShip One, Government Zero” sign. After the spacecraft’s successful return, they towed it past the cheering crowds, Rutan riding in a van behind it. Suddenly the van stopped, Rutan jumped out, and came running toward the crowd lining the runway. When he was walking away, I’ve never seen someone looking so pleased. He was holding up the sign, which the guy had given him.

  3. ndesanjo says:

    I am with you, Ethan. ILet me borrow these words from Bob Marley’s So Much Trouble in the World:
    Blast off on their spaceship,
    Million miles from reality:
    No care for you, no care for me.

  4. Maureen Guenther says:

    I caught Mr. Rutan after his presentation and asked when he thought Number Two might land and we could come into contact — touch, explore — what’s out there — being a bit revved up after listening to so many innovators for so many days — and he told me that “my husband and I, as tourists, could enjoy the sights from within the ship and ‘land’ back in the Mojave.” My 3 kids walked away with me and said — no shit — “Our mom’s no tourist” (saying nothing about not being married)(or their grammar). Not until late that night did I recall Dorothy pulling back the curtain to gasp “Why, you’re not a Wizard at all. You’re just a man!” Still, he’s just one man, from one era, and feeling secure that we all have lots of ideas left in our attics to explore. He’s beautiful in a lot of ways, straight up. Thanks for your excellent entries. It’s go time.

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