Rocket man

3 Jun 2005

For Burt Rutan, innovation is exactly rocket science. The Californian engineer, aviator and entrepreneur runs a small company, Scaled Composites, that has been instrumental in making several breakthroughs that look set to lead to the real and tantalising possibility of mass-market manned space travel.

To achieve what is literally a far-out idea, he has led and motivated a team of creative people and so is well placed to know what it means to complete real innovation. Appropriately, he spoke about this very subject last month at the Innovation Island II conference held in Dublin. Rutan, now aged 62, began his presentation by observing the road to new ideas is often beset with obstacles. “Whenever there’s a breakthrough, you can go back and find a consensus that said ‘That’s nonsense’,” he said.

The man who designed Voyager, the first aircraft to fly around the world non-stop without refuelling, clearly enjoys his role as a maverick. He can’t resist a sly dig at NASA, purposely mispronouncing the word as ‘naysay’. Commenting on the video footage of SpaceShipOne, he quips: “See the bored-looking people in the background? They’re from the FAA [Federal Aviation Authority]”. He continues his theme by stressing governments do not innovate and new ideas come from the private sector and from entrepreneurs. “Breakthroughs are something unexpected that bring significant results. These are the things that define us.”

The reasons to innovate may not always come from the loftiest motives, according to Rutan, who identifies survival from threats as a more likely spur. In the Sixties, when Russia beat the US to put the first man in space, it was the trigger for the space race. “It was what we needed to come back from the embarrassment of a perceived defeat,” he said. The lessons are universal and no one whose organisation has ever seen rough times could fail to understand the significance of Rutan’s next remark. “Breakthroughs don’t tend to happen when you have mediocrity but when you have a crisis; we essentially get creative when we’re threatened. We went to the moon in bad times.”

Rutan turned to the basis for innovation, asking rhetorically: “What is research? It’s where half the people you gather together to do it think: ‘That’s impossible’. You’re not going to get a breakthrough if everyone thinks it can be done.” Rutan quoted the rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, one of his own heroes, who said: “Basic research is what I am doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Rutan believed a manager’s only task is to set the goal of the research and to get funding for it. “A manager needs to expect multiple failures and keep his mouth shut.” This looks much harsher on paper than it did coming from Rutan, but his point was that innovation doesn’t happen according to strict timetables or to meet deadlines — and it doesn’t always happen the first time. Anyone managing such a project needs to understand this. Elaborating further, he highlighted some key differences between productivity and creativity. The former is managed by a specification or schedule, it involves analysis and iteration and accuracy is desirable. The latter is managed only by a goal, it involves invention and thought, and accuracy is not important. “If you want a person to be productive, you give them a computer and a desk. If you want them to be creative, you give them a sketchpad,” he said.

“Breakthroughs normally don’t occur as a goal; we may stumble into them, we may be trying something that may not work. You can’t just throw money at something and get a breakthrough,” Rutan said. Referring to the personality type that tends to get results, he added: “The person who is seeking to go out and achieve a breakthrough, he or she has got to be a little crazy because he or she got to have confidence in nonsense.”

Rutan also spoke of the kind of environment suitable for innovators. Innovation tends not to happen at a desk. “Get away from the office and sit on a beach,” he urged. Rutan also recommended that creative people shouldn’t know the history of what they’re working on; that way, they don’t get caught in a straitjacket of copying what has gone before.

The message, clearly, is that innovation leads to new industries. “You will see in four to five years, competing sub-orbital space lines. In the first five years of operations, we will fly 3,000 people; in the next five, there will be 80,000 astronauts. In 15 years, our kids will know, if they want to go into orbit in their lifetime, they can.”

Growth resulting from innovation doesn’t always follow a clear line. To put things into perspective, the Wright brothers first flew in 1903 and five years later, only 10 people had flown. However in the four following years, there was a raft of innovation with hundreds of new aircraft types being tested and flown by thousands of pilots. “What happened was, nonsensical things were tried and aeroplanes evolved by natural selection,” said Rutan. This principle extended to space travel: on Saturn’s maiden flight, it went to the moon. Quoting Von Braun again: “The most difficult thing in going to the moon is the will to do it. The engineering is just calculations.”

SpaceShipOne, the private manned spacecraft designed by Burt Rutan, glides down for approach to the Mojave airport
Photo: Scaled Composites, LLC

By Gordon Smith