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Rutan's the Man!

When Virgin Galactic start up commercial suborbital flights next year, the technology will be due to the work of a remarkable man.

Burt Rutan is often described as the 'second true innovator' in the field of aerospace materials technology. The first of the great pioneers in aircraft materials was the German engineer Hugo Junkers, who pioneered the design of all-metal aircraft in 1915.

In recent years Rutan has become famous as the designer of the mothership and spacecraft that won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen sponsored the challenge, and Rutan came up with the combination of WhiteKnightOne and SpaceShipOne.

So together they launched the first privately-funded manned vehicle to go beyond the 100-kilometre frontier into space. And the implications are huge.

'We have redefined space travel as we know it,' said Rutan.

'Our success proves without question that manned space flight does not require mammoth government expenditures. It can be done by a small company operating with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees.'

Rutan did it by sheer mastery of materials technology and aircraft design. Born in Estacada, Oregon, in 1943, he was designing and building model aircraft by the time he was eight, flying solo at sixteen, and graduating in 1965 with a degree in aeronatutical engineering.

He worked for the US Air Force as a flight test project engineer, then went to California in 1974 to create his own business, the Rutan Aircraft Factory. His first design, the two-seater VariViggen, had been started in his garage. He didn't have a wind tunnel, so he rigged up a model on top of his station wagon and measured the aerodynamic forces while driving on empty roads.

A series of innovative designs followed, with commissions to build aircraft that were often small and light. In 1982, he formed an expanded company, Scaled Composites. He pioneered the use of techniques such as the application of NASA-developed winglets, and the use of mouldless glass-reinforced plastic construction.

His brother Dick gave him the challenge of designing an aircraft that could fly non-stop around the world without refuelling - and in December 1986 Dick Rutan was able to successfully fly the completed aircraft, the model 76 Voyager, ariound the world (westward) in nine days.

Rutan went on to design Voyager's successor, Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, with which Steve Fossett broke the Voyager record in 2005. Fossett himself, who died in an aircraft accident in the Nevada Desert in 2007, was an extraordinary man, who held no less than 115 world records in activities from aviationa nd ballooning to sailing and dogsledding. 'He was one of the bravest and most determined adventurers and explorers of all time,' was the tribute of his friend Richard Branson. 'He truly was the adventurer's adventurer.' Branson is planning to name the second WhiteKnightTwo aircraft Spirit of Steve Fossett.

Carbon composites

Critical to the success of the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer was Rutan's ability to find ways to reduce weight. At one stage he is said to have cheerfully told his staff that when they finished building a part, they must throw it up in the air for a weight test, and 'If it comes down, it's too heavy.'

The use of carbon composites has played an important part in his ever-pressing quest to make aircraft lighter. The round-the-world Voyager, back in 1986, was all-carbon.

Carbon composites are lighter and stronger. The rationale is the same as that for putting straw into mud-bricks or metal rods into concrete - reinforcement of strength. The first high-performance carbon fibres were made in 1958 in the US by Dr Roger Bacon, but it was the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in the UK who developed a production process and patented it.

The RAE licensed the process to three British companies. Rolls-Royce used the technology for their RB-211 turbofan aero-engine (in which a major role was played by Sir Alex Smith, born in Lossiemouth, who later went on to lead the development of Manchester Polytechnic). Carbon fibre was used for the RB-211's fan stage, giving a significant weight saving over stainless steel, but it proved not strong enough to meet test requirements, and was replaced by titanium.

The second company, Morganite, found the carbon field too challenging. The third one, Courtaulds, developed carbon-fibre for aerospace and sports goods, but an attempt to expand led to problems and the ceasing of carbon-fibre production in 1991.

The one surviving UK manufacturer is based in Muir of Ord, in the Highlands of Scotland. This is RK Carbon Fibres Ltd, producing carbon fibre for industrial applications.

In recent years the world's leading airframe makers, such as Boeing and Airbus, have increased their use of composites in a new generation of planes, but Rutan is recognised as the pioneer in carbon technologies.

For WhiteKnightTwo, the largest all-composite plane ever built, he's used woven fibres of glass graphite and aramid, bonded with epoxy resins. Kevlar is the generic name of the material used in bulletproof jackets.

Rutan's process involves heating in an autoclave after bonding, and this makes the structure immensely strong - and lighter than the pressed aluminium and titanium used in the standard commercial aircraft of today.

Ansari and after

Winning the Ansari X Prize in 2004 was an immense breakthrough. It really did, in Rutan's own words, redefine space travel. The National Aeronautic Association awareded the project team the 2004 Collier Trophy, given for 'greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronauticvs in America'.

Richard Branson, who has himself demonstrated time and again the ability to redefine whole business sectors, was quick to see the potential, and plans were developed for Virgin Galactic to develop space tourism about successors to WhiteKnightOne and SpaceShipOne.

It's clear that there are several elements running through the Virgin Galactic concept. In business terms, it's the opportunity to open the way to a whole new type of tourism. In technology terms, it's a means of developing new fuel-efficient designs that could transform the future of flight.

Further, a new focus on space can make the human race more aware of its present situation and to inspire a new generation. 'It represents,' says Branson, 'the chance for our ever-growing group of future astronauts and other scientists to see our world in a completely new light.'

Rutan has been retired since April 2011 - but he says that he still has more design to go. He rounded out his work for the company with a flying car, and now he says that has an idea for a seaplane for any surface - 'water, snow, grass, and hard surface.' Like everything that Rutan has done so, this is one to keep watching.

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