As part of Aviation Week & Space Technology's special centennial issue, we asked Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan to share his thoughts on the next 100 years of aerospace, and the ingredients required for technological breakthroughs.
My addiction to Aviation Week began over 50 years ago. During my seven years of military flight-testing at Edwards AFB, California, the magazine was our best source of aerospace information. We pored through every issue and kept them for reference. Chief Editor Robert Hotz not only reported the raw aerospace facts, his editorials were the warfighter’s political grist. I recall shouting “Hotz for president” while reading his editorial during the 1968 campaign.
On the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight, Aviation Week asked me for comments. I identified nine individuals I thought were most responsible for the progress of the first 100 years of flight. I later discovered that all had been young children during that incredible four-year period starting in 1908 when Wilbur Wright flew his airplane in Paris. By 1912, aircraft were being flown in 39 countries, and factories in Europe were building more than 500 aircraft per year!
When children at the age of 4-16 observe extreme progress, as adults they tend to exercise the “three Cs”—Curiosity, Creativity and Courage. This questing spirit drives the technical breakthroughs so important to human progress.
Why the worldwide surge in airplane development in just four years? Clearly mankind has been curious all along, but it was the courage to try that energized the world’s creative minds. Think: “Hey, if bicycle shop guys can do it, I can, too.”
Further evidence: Almost all the billionaires that now provide our breakthroughs in commercial space were 4-16-year-old observers, living in the incredible 1960s when—in only nine years—the world developed nine different rocket launch systems that flew humans to space. Subsequently, only three new human launch systems were flown in the next 46 years. Is it possible that this lack of progress is because there has not been a surge of exciting new capabilities to motivate young people?
1. Successful innovators aggressively practice the “three Cs” because, as children, they concluded that impossible achievements are not just possible, but expected.
2. Advances in technology do not happen at a linear rate. Short segments of phenomenal progress are scattered among decades of boredom.
3. Innovators can achieve far more than what most people believe can be done.
4. Most technical breakthroughs happen because individuals work to achieve personal goals, not because governments provide funding.
With this in mind, what are the most important technologies aerospace should pursue? What are the most promising technologies that might be overlooked?
Research, as opposed to development, requires a goal most people see as impossible. You cannot encourage progress on research breakthroughs that are yet to be discovered. Could we have encouraged the invention of today’s Internet in 1980?
But we must try.
We should aggressively work to discover if we are the only intelligent species in the universe. Everyone has this curiosity (the first “C”). I would love to see innovators attack the question with the other two “Cs.” I believe that my lifetime has included the most interesting period of human history. However, if I miss our discovery of ET, or whatever the extraterrestrials will call themselves, then my belief will definitely be wrong.
I agree with my friend Elon Musk that locating our species on more than just Earth may be our most important engineering challenge. Also, protecting our planet and our species from history’s only real significant threat (asteroid/comet impact) should not be overlooked. Aerospace researchers should have a critical role in developing technologies needed to achieve both those goals.
In the mid ’60s, when we were in a four-country race to develop supersonic transport (SST) capability, it seemed a logical jump forward—a similar step to the advent of jet airliners just 11 years earlier. The only SST put into service was the Concorde, which was in service an entire life cycle with no intermediate improvements in efficiency, noise or performance. Because it never had competition, excitement about it decreased during the entire 27 years.
I no longer think developing supersonic personal transportation is important. We will soon have realistic virtual reality so the business executive can feel the nuances of a handshake while signing the big contract without enduring the airplane ride. His competition, flying in a supersonic jet, will get beat by several hours. Also, the general public will soon experience unlimited, low-cost vacations to exotic and newly discovered locations using impressive virtual reality that will improve every year.
Education is our most overlooked technical problem. Our current standardized, regulated classroom environment is a failure. After the Apollo Moon landings, America was first in awarding advanced degrees in math/engineering/sciences to its citizens. Now we don’t even show up on the first page. We must strive to nurture in our children the Curiosity, Creativity and Courage that took us to the Moon, restoring the sense of our exceptionalness. The big public education experiment has failed America and cannot be fixed by mere money. We need to apply the three “Cs” to the problem with a clear goal of regaining our No. 1 status. This effort requires the best talent within the aerospace industry. Reaching this goal might save the world.
Those who defend the current educational system will ask what the new breakthroughs will look like. We don’t know. We didn’t know what the Internet, GPS and DNA looked like before they were recognized as breakthroughs. But that shouldn’t deter us.
Any important breakthrough, before it happens, is often dismissed as nonsense. Those who find the breakthroughs need to have confidence in nonsense. Successful innovators tend to look more like idiots than the sensible, straight-A students who spend their careers being careful to never fail. The “sensible” do not recognize the importance of the third “C.”
Published by Aviationweek.com