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Sunday, November 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Space-flight pioneer predicts 3,000 "astronauts" in 5 years
By Michael Martinez
LOS ANGELES Burt Rutan, a maverick aviator with Elvis-like sideburns, spread his futuristic vision last week of space travel no longer dominated by the government but by daring engineers such as himself.
Seeking to inspire students, faculty and visitors at the University of California, Los Angeles, Rutan on Friday offered a new vision for 21st-century commercial travel including "spacelines" instead of airlines and resort hotels in orbit taking average citizens where only handfuls of astronauts have tread thus far.
Rutan called for a new era in aviation, saying risk-taking adventurers like the Wright Brothers are needed again to make space tourism a reality.
"We haven't had a proper, aggressive space program in this country since 1970," said Rutan, weeks after he and his team made history by flying the first private craft to outer space and back.
Trying to devise spacecraft for tourism will mean trial-and-error, including crashes of test vehicles, Rutan acknowledged.
"Yeah, there will be smoking holes, but the airplane was made through natural selection," he told about 250 people. "That needs to happen in order to discover the breakthroughs that are out there."
For skeptics who wonder how Rutan's SpaceShipOne entering lower orbits last month translates to lucrative tourism, he noted that the world's earliest aircraft builders never imagined commercial airlines, either.
For that vision to materialize, however, a new generation of "superheroes" will be needed from today's students and children, to be inspired the way Howard Hughes and Charles Lindbergh were as children during the aviation's infancy in the early 1900s, Rutan said.
The payoff would be a breathtaking view of Earth, he said, showing slides and videos of how his prototype reached the black void of space this year.
With funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Rutan and his Scaled Composites firm developed the spaceship and a launching aircraft that in October secured the Ansari X-Prize. It was a $10 million reward for flying the first private manned spacecraft to an altitude exceeding 328,000 feet twice within a 14-day period.
And, yes, resort hotels in orbit high above Earth would open their doors in 15 years and would become affordable for thousands of guests 25 years from now, Rutan said.
By 2050, he predicted, spacelines would become so common that passengers "will be bored looking out of a suborbital space flight as we do on an airliner," he said.
British businessman Richard Branson has signed a deal with Rutan to begin a spaceline called Virgin Galactic, which would charge $230,000 a person to take a three-hour flight and experience three to four minutes of weightlessness, with a view of the world's curvature.
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