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Burt Rutan’s Race to Space — book review

27 June 2011

Burt Rutan’s Race to Space — book review

Burt Rutan’s Race to Space: the magician of Mohave and his flying innovations, Dan Linehan, 2011, ISBN-13 978-0-7603-3815-5, 160 pp.

Zenith Press

As is the custom in publishing, I was offered a copy of this title for review with no inducements, caveats or remuneration.

This is not only a book about Burt Rutan’s successful quest into space, it encompasses the aeronautical legacy Burt Rutan. Simply put, it all appears to be here in 160 pages (including index), explained in a clear writing style accompanied by photos as well as illustrations. The appendix summarizes most of Rutan’s designs. One book cannot cover them all, as I learned in Linehan’s book, since almost every idea that was created from Rutan’s immensely fertile mind was assigned a project number — but there are an incredible 84 entries nonetheless.

Linehan writes objectively and concisely in an easily understood style. Engineering principles and design decisions are nicely explained without resorting to mathematic formulae. Analogies to Charles Lindbergh are too often done for my preferences. Why only Lindbergh? He was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean but hardly the first to aviate its expanse. Linehan intends the comparison to be that of Lindbergh’s race to win the Orteig Prize with Rutan’s pursuit of the Ansari X Prize* — which is the same tack taken by the X Prize Foundation. A bit too tidy for my preference.

He also elided, I think, over two significant events. Appropriately, the Beechcraft Starship is featured in text and images but there is no discussion with regard to its lack of commercial success. I think this was a missed opportunity since the aircraft was an aerodynamic advancement (it still looks postmodern though it is two decades old) and Rutan must have learned some business lessons in a realm most of us never experience — lessons he likely applied to his SpaceShipOne venture. The second of the events is the crash of SpaceShipOne during development. It is only mentioned in a single phrase without mentioning lessons learned from the event. Often more is learned from a crash than a successful test flight. Curiously, a web search will not bring up this event either with the exception that it occurred 14 September 1993.

The above are only critiques, not criticisms as this book is an excellent reference that not only has facts and figures but insights and explanations. Some of these are, though there is much more in Linehan’s book:

  • Why Burt Rutan uses canards in his aircraft designs
  • Why he moved away from pusher configurations in his single engine aircraft designs
  • That he was involved with the F-4 Phantom II, the F-15 Eagle and the Bede BD-5
  • Explanations involving the engine locations on the wings regarding safety and performance
  • Why the windows on SpaceShipOne as well as White Knight are circular as well as how they serve as references
  • The clever design of the fuel tank of SpaceShipOne as well as the design of the hybrid rocket engine
  • Why so many of the Rutan designs that flew (and flew well) are one-offs.

Adding to the value of this book is the discussion of the nascent commercial passenger space flight industry. The success of the White Knight/SpaceShipOne flight system has evolved to the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo flight system (note the change in spelling convention), not to mention why WhiteKnightTwo has been named Eve (not for a biblical reason). Both WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo carry several more passengers than the previous system. SpaceShipOne was about winning — SpaceShipTwo is about business and opening a new niche.

This book is not only a superb reference regarding an incredible aeronautical engineer, as well as the story behind the winner of the Ansari X Prize, it is also describes the experiences and decisions of a business entrepreneur. I think that this last part is important since, like it or not, without money successful engineering designs languish latent — their potential unrealized.

The book is a high quality production with glossy pages, large format and it lays flat on a table when opened.

Notes

*Originally the Ansari X Prize was called the X Prize, it was an award of $10 million USD for the first nongovernmental organization to fly a manned aircraft carrying three persons (or a single person with added ballast for the other two passengers) into space twice within a two week period. Flight had to extend above the Kármán Line, which is 100km (62 miles) above sea level. It is this altitude that engineer and physicist Theodore von Kármán determined was the upper limit of Earth’s atmosphere with regard to aeronautical flight — in short, insufficient air density to sustain lift without exceeding orbital velocity.

More of Dan Linehan’s work can be seen here.

Errata (28 June 2011): Initially I mistakenly spelled the author’s last name incorrectly. I learned of this and corrected the errors with many apologies to the writer of this wonderful book, Dan Linehan.

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