Monday, May 16, 2005

Burt Rutan Falls Short

He has the right ideas, but for the wrong reasons, and falls short

CNN conducted an interview with Elbert L. "Burt" Rutan, of recent SpaceShipOne and GlobalFlyer fame. Among other things, he has been described as a visionary, a genius, an innovator, and a maverick engineer.

CNN began the interview with this question:

Are we at the dawn of a new space age?

Burt answers:

I'm just predicting that within the next decade, after getting a good start of flying thousands of people outside the atmosphere, we'll have solutions to move in the direction of orbital flight.

Towards the end of the interview, CNN asks:

CNN: What are the attractions of going into space?

Burt replies:

If you have to ask why that's attractive you probably won't be going. Those that don't want to go, they don't have to. But from young children to very old people there are a lot of people who really want to have the fun of doing that.

'That' being space tourism. Burt envisions a lot of people taking sub-orbital flights, for the view and the fun of doing it. He says that there will be a lot of commercial enterprises competing for this tourism business, and it will become relatively cheap. He feels that this will eventually lead to space hotels in orbit. He is probably correct on all points.

However, I do not feel that this scenario is a viable driving force for the human race going into space, and that Burt's vision falls short of our desires and capabilities. As I said before in this post, there will have to be substantial economic forces driving space flight. Sub-orbital tourism, once the novelty wears off, will not generate enough income to finance the enormous effort required to establish a presence on our moon, and other solar bodies. The end result of those efforts will have to lead to wealth in the form of resources. Tourism, and even colonization, just will not be sufficient.

Update: Further reading on Resources from Space: Tangible Resources Can Be Brought to Earth from Space, NASA: New Space Industries For The Next Millenium, Nasa Institute For Advanced Concepts, NASA: The Future Development of Space, and a list of links from the First Space Resources Roundtable.

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