“Research should be defined as doing something where half the people who know about it, thinks it’s impossible. When there’s a true breakthrough, you can always go back to period in time when people said “that’s impossible’. That means a true creative researcher needs to have ‘Confidence in Nonsense'”. – Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne.

The Mohave Desert is the birthplace of the sonic boom and the X15. And now the mantle of innovation rests on the shoulders of Burt Rutan of SpaceShipOne. Only two winged craft have gone into space, the X15 and the space shuttle. Both took decades to develop and were incredibly expensive programs to develop. Neither have been able to bring the cost of spaceflight down so economically such that regular people like you and me can travel into space, either for business or pleasure. And yet, in September 2004, SpaceShipOne broke all the rules, not once but twice, in a craft that was flown by wire by a human (not computer controlled) and was fuelled by laughing gas and old tires.

So what can would-be innovators learn from SpaceShipOne’s experience? Firstly let’s consider Burt Rutan, the designer and leader of the team. Rutan says “There are less than 500 people who have flown in space in 40 years. People believe that government organizations are working on ways to get the rest of us into space, but they are not. Unless guys like me do this, it will not get done, period.”

And so as far back as 1994, Burt started putting pen to paper and dreaming up new and original ways that spaceflight could be accomplished on the cheap. But it was not until 2001 when Paul Allen invested, that Burt really got serious about going after the Ansari X prize and developing SpaceShipOne. Putting together a small team of very smart people, where everyone was responsible for something critical. But elite doesn’t mean lots of experience. Matt Steimetz, a young bright guy who worked on the construction of the craft says, “Most companies would say you’re just a kid out of college and you don’t have enough experience to work on a spaceship, here they just give you a lot of responsibility and say we’ll see how you do.” Of course, one could argue that with so few spaceships in the world, who would have the experience?

Using materials that were cheap and abundantly available was most important to the team. The fuel composed of nitrous oxide and rubber (aka laughing gas and old tires) is highly economical, compared to the thousands of pounds of liquid oxygen consumed by the space shuttle, let alone its solid rocket boosters. The construction of the craft was based on airplane kit designs, using fiberglass and other lightweight materials to keep both weight and cost down. And yet, the design is so unique. Part of the space shuttle’s ongoing cost are the thermal ceramic tiles on its underside, which protects it from the immense heat of reentry. Instead Rutan designed a wing structure that ‘feathers’ by 90 degrees, slowing the descent of the craft so that tiles are unnecessary. Revolutionary.

And so armed with his small team and two craft (one to lift SpaceShipOne part way into the sky, that is a design accomplishment in itself) Rutan has accomplished the seemingly impossible. Jim Tighe, the Chief Aerodynamicist of SpaceShipOne says, “Nowadays we place very little emphasis on what an individual can do, I hope this shows people that to achieve something great, you don’t need to be a large multinational corporation or large governments needing international cooperation with the US, Russia and Japan. You don’t need millions of people to do something fantastic. Hopefully today we have showed that 20 people can do something fantastic – just look what we did with 20 people in 3 years.”

An extraordinary accomplishment. So what can this world’s would-be innovators learn from SpaceShipOne’s experience? Here are some key points:

1) Dare to Dream and have a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) – why not? Even if you have to take tiny steps to getting there, you are still on the path to achieving what you want.
2) Do have the best team possible, and trust your team members to deliver.
3) Don’t be limited by the way things have been done before. Question everything.
4) You don’t need unlimited resources to get things done, just a small group of people who really want to make a difference.
5) Go back to the drawing board. Approach the problem many different ways. Redefine the problem and follow the sequence of events that cause the problem. Perhaps you can affect the root cause earlier in the chain, so the problem doesn’t even occur.

Burt Rutan’s hero is Werner von Braun for his pioneering work in rocketry. Someone asked Werner von Braun once, “What is the most difficult thing about going to the moon?” He replied, “The will to do it”. Burt adds, “The technology isn’t an issue, it’s the way people think about Space.” For Burt, this is not an end, just a very good beginning.

Thanks Burt, for your ‘confidence in nonsense.’ And here’s to all you innovators out there thinking at 337,500 feet.