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Sat, May 06, 2006

Rutan Slams NASA For Old-Tech Capsule Design

"I Don't Know What They're Doing"

In a speech Thursday before the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan took the opportunity to grill NASA over the agency's decision to use Apollo-style capsules to ferry astronauts into space -- and, eventually, the moon -- in the post-shuttle era, instead of a more inspired design.

"I don't know what they're doing," said Rutan about NASA. "It doesn't make any sense."

Rutan added NASA's proposed crew exploration vehicle, or CEV, doesn't push the technical envelope, and isn't capable of more complex future missions such as a trip to Mars.

Of course, NASA has already admitted as much about the CEV, saying the agency is looking at a simple, more practical space vehicle -- similar in concept to the Apollo capsules of the late 1960s-early 1970s, and the current Russian Soyuz -- that is also much cheaper to build and maintain than the current, aging shuttle fleet.

In response to Rutan's comments that criticized NASA for not aiming higher with its next spacecraft, NASA spokesman Dean Acosta called the CEV a "fiscally responsible" project, one that can achieve NASA's objective of returning to the moon -- on a budget.

"If you want sexy, it will cost a lot more money," Acosta said.

Rutan -- whose company, Scaled Composites, is now working on the SpaceShipTwo commercial suborbital vehicle -- stressed to the audience Thursday that a technological breakthrough is needed in spacecraft design that would make it affordable and safe for humans to travel throughout the solar system.

Rutan also added he doesn't know what that idea might be -- but that he has hope that someone, perhaps out of the normal scientific fold, does.

"Usually the wacky people have the breakthrough. The smart people don't," Rutan said.

Meanwhile, two groups -- Lockheed Martin, and a team composed of engineers from Northrop Grumman and Boeing -- have contracts to develop conceptual designs for the CEV. Both projects reportedly rely on a combination of Apollo-era design elements, and space shuttle-tech such as the use of solid rocket boosters.

NASA is expected to name a winner in the CEV design competition by August.

FMI: www.scaled.com, www.nasa.gov

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