Mogul, Rebel Team Up In Commercial Space Venture

Sunday, April 15th 2007, 3:03 pm
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ 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.

American engineer Burt Rutan and British tycoon Sir 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.

``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.

Aviation history has other odd couples: The wealthy Harry Guggenheim financed the early rocket work of the loner Robert Goddard; international arms dealer Charles Flint helped the Wright brothers sell their airplanes outside the United States; telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell enlisted Glenn Curtiss, a brash motorcycle manufacturer, to help build a practical plane.

Now it's Branson, the adventuring chairman of the multibillion-dollar Virgin Group of companies, who is investing at least $200 million for a fleet of suborbital passenger spaceships being designed by Rutan. Rutan heads the obliquely named Scaled Composites LLC, the kind of techie operation where a new milling machine is announced on its Web site with an exclamation point.

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 Rutan's track record and 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.

Rutan and 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, Rutan, 63, had a single-minded focus on pushing the envelope of experimental aircraft design. Described by some as a genius, he has designed some 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.

Branson, 56, is a swashbuckling 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, Branson trademarked Virgin Galactic with the hopes of ultimately flying the brand in space.

The men differ in their appearance as well as their social circles. With his 1970s-style muttonchops and leather jacket, Rutan works among engineers, technicians and pilots on a wind-swept Mojave Desert airfield.

Branson _ with his golden, tousled hair and goatee _ hobnobs with celebrities, relaxes on his private Necker Island and makes cameo appearances in Hollywood movies.

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 Branson's Virgin Galactic camp.

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.

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

Rutan told The Associated Press: ``It is quite some time off.''

Before Rutan teamed with Branson, he was partners with another billionaire _ Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul G. Allen _ who, like Rutan, tends to shy away from publicity. Allen invested more than $20 million of his fortune to fund SpaceShipOne and was tightlipped about his involvement until a public unveiling in 2003.

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 spill 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 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 Pickens, who now runs his own propulsion company.

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

In speeches since SpaceShipOne's history-making flights, Rutan has admitted that the Allen-backed project was a year behind schedule. No one noticed, he said, because no timetable was ever released.

Rutan faces a different challenge this time around pairing up with the publicity-seeking 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 mock-up of the interior featuring reclining seats and spacious windows that excited space bloggers. Branson was center of attention as he strapped himself in a seat and gave two thumbs up.

Rutan was nowhere to be found.

``We don't go out and promote Virgin Galactic because that would be improper and unfair to the other spaceline customers,'' said Rutan, who declined to elaborate. ``I have to be careful to not favor.''

Branson was traveling and unavailable to comment.

Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn says the two have a mutual respect and are more alike than most people think.

``I think Burt understands the commercial needs that we have and we understand his wish to keep as much of his technological development under wraps as long as possible,'' Whitehorn said.

Adventurer Steve Fossett says both men have different strengths: Rutan is the visionary while Branson is the salesman.

``Virgin wants to get into business as soon as possible, but a designer like Scaled needs time to do it right,'' Fossett said.