Burt Rutan: Behind the scenes at SpaceShipTwo roll-out
"Honey, I can't hear you. Emergency evacuation?" Burt Rutan gives me a bewildered look, then hands me his cellphone. I listen for his wife but all I hear is a loud clatter and the howl of the wind. It's Monday evening and we're in an aircraft hangar outside Mojave, California, a small town around 160 kilometres north of Los Angeles. Sleet and icy winds are gusting outside at speeds over 100 kilometres per hour.
Rutan is the designer of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, the world's first privately built passenger-carrying spacecraft. An hour earlier, he and Richard Branson – the principal funder – unveiled SpaceShipTwo at a glitzy ceremony. Despite the weather, the event drew 800 whooping VIPs, media people and celebrities – including the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Atmospheric music and a dramatic light show set the mood as SpaceShipTwo loomed into view slung under its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft that will carry it to high altitude for launch.
Branson's daughter smashed a bottle of champagne across the nose of the craft and renamed it Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise. Then everyone headed into two huge tents for a party to quaff champagne and vodka cocktails.
Rutan is unmoved by the glitz. "We call it Mojavewood," he tells me as we slip away from the party for a quiet chat in his office.
I give him his phone back and he tries his wife again. Eventually, the message gets through. She says the party tent is being evacuated for fear it might get blown away. Moments later, three of Rutan's senior managers arrive to tell him they can't get the spacecraft back in the hangar – the wind is so strong that there's a risk it might get blown into a wall.
We head out to the runway and find the spacecraft anchored for safety. It is bobbing in the wind. One engineer suggests creating a windshield using the buses that brought guests from Los Angeles so that it can be wheeled back into the hangar. The idea is quickly dismissed as too risky. Instead the aircraft is left anchored, and everyone is evacuated to a nearby hotel.
On the way, we drive past Schwarzenegger's private jet as it taxis along the runway. It has been held on the ground for two hours because the wind was too strong to take off. Moments later we pass the party tent, which has now been reduced to a pile of tarpaulin and twisted metal. "I told them it was a bad idea to hold the event in this weather," says Rutan.
Branson is banking on Rutan to create a craft that will allow him to sell rides to the edge of space – an altitude of 100 kilometres – where passengers will experience up to 5 minutes of weightlessness. So far, he's sold 300 tickets at $200,000 a time, funding just over half the development cost of SpaceShipTwo. Some aspiring astronauts paid up five years ago.
For that outlay, Branson must know that you have to give your customers something to look forward to – hence yesterday's roll-out. If Rutan had had his way, however, no one would have seen SpaceShipTwo until it was ready to take passengers into space. "It's just an unhelpful distraction and unwanted pressure," he says.
So when will the spacecraft be ready? "This is a research project, so we don't have timetables. I can't tell you how far off we are, but it's not complete yet," he says. "She wasn't even painted three days ago and she won't be flying in the next few weeks, that's for sure." However, Rutan adds that he's confident test flights will begin in 2010.
In the meantime, a few aspiring astronauts have no doubt had their enthusiasm topped up.