A retrospective of Burt Rutan’s high-performance art

You can always tell a Burt Rutan airplane, just as you can always tell a Dr Seuss drawing or a Beatles song. It’s not only the configurations — though canards, winglets, or twin booms sometimes give them away. It’s not just the materials, though composites have been key to Rutan’s achievements and helped make him the hero of the homebuilder. And it’s not just the futurism, though Rutan designs always look like they flew in from a decade off in the distance. There’s some other quality rolled up with those three that makes you know it’s a Rutan. We think of it as playfulness.

Consider SpaceShipOne, Rutan’s best-known creation, which made history in 2004 as the world’s first private spaceship. It looks the way it does for sound engineering reasons: Its famous tail feathers were deployed to slow and control its atmospheric reentry, its tubby fuselage has a diameter of five feet to accommodate an oxidizer tank of similar dimension and a comfortable cabin, and its pointy little nose is sprinkled with small round windows so that the pilot could see the horizon at all times during the flight up to 60 miles and back. But SpaceShipOne is also toy-like. Can anyone doubt kids would be delighted by a small model of it?

When Rutan retired from Scaled Composites, the California company he founded in 1982 (10 years after designing his first full-scale airplane), leaving a legacy of 38 piloted craft, among them Voyager, the first to fly around the world without stopping or refuelling. (He also designed a half-dozen unpiloted craft as well as re-entry vehicles, round-the-world balloon gondolas, the structure for a four-passenger automobile, and the blades for a wind turbine.) Five Rutan designs are in the National Air and Space Museum.

As playful as Rutan’s work is, it tackled serious goals: safety, efficiency, endurance, opening space travel to everyman. On the next pages, we describe his designs, from the first to the…well, according to the designer himself, we haven’t seen the last. He recently told a group of admirers that when he retired to Idaho last spring, he took along his drawing board. Source: ‚Smithsonian Magazine‚.

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