David R. Henderson  

Dick Rutan on Aeronautical Progress and Government

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I've just returned from a 2.5 hour presentation by Dick Rutan, the man who, with Jeana Yeager, flew the first non-stop non-refueled flight around the world. They did so in December 1986. It was an amazing show that I recommend to anyone who is fascinated with people taking risks and putting it on the line to do amazing things. Very inspiring.

I remember well the day they landed. We turned on the TV to watch it. He and Jeana got out of the plane, sat there a while, and stretched. My wife commented, "Where are all the government officials to take them away the way they always do?" I said, "Rena, this is a privately funded, non-government enterprise." She was amazed. I remember the feeling of wonder that day. It reminded me of the excitement when I read the section of Atlas Shrugged on the first test of a train on a track made of Rearden Metal. I was inspired to write about it and compare it to the Rearden Metal train ride. I submitted it to National Review as one of the short unsigned items in the front of the magazine. (I had been the economics editor for the previous five months and, despite their warning that they would probably publish only half of the items I wrote, they had published everything.) I knew it was a risk, given NR's attitude to Rand. But, damn it, it was a risk worth taking. That's how inspired I felt. They didn't publish this one. Guess whom Buckley wrote to fire a month later.

Rutan would occasionally light in to the government for slowing down progress. Some good lines follow:

On the White Knight, his and his brother Burt's later successful attempt to win the X prize:
"This had nothing to do with your tax money and the incompetent organization called Naysay."

He thought of Shakespeare's line when he was dealing with a government official trying to throw roadblocks in the way of their goal of space travel (this is the quote verbatim, although I was unable to find it on the web):
"Pardon me, sir, but I must leave lest I soil my hands with the blood of a fool."

On the Shuttle, he asked us to guess what percent of the weight is the payload. I yelled out "2 percent" and other people guessed bigger numbers. He pointed at me and said:
"He's right. 2 percent of the Scuttle weight is payload."

On a federal official who got involved when they did the White Knight:
"There was one guy whose only job was to make sure there wasn't a desert tortoise that could get hurt."

And finally:
"The greatest challenge to getting things done is our damn government."

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Bob writes:

I couldn't find the full "soil my hands" quote, but, this one is close.

"M. M. was delighted with the event, and I was more pleased than she, for I should have been sorry to have been obliged to soil my hands with the lood of that rascally count."


david writes:

Psst. The X Prize was only open to non-governmental organizations; entries could not use taxpayer funding. So his statement is, ah, slightly redundant.

Also, the mind boggles at an engineer acting as if there could be no possible externalities from firing a rocket. Desert tortoises, indeed. I can only hope his influence on SpaceShipOne was minimal, or that he was exaggerating his attitude to play to the audience.

Bob Murphy writes:

david wrote:

"Psst. The X Prize was only open to non-governmental organizations; entries could not use taxpayer funding. So his statement is, ah, slightly redundant."

Why did you say, "Psst"? Do you think Henderson doesn't know this?

And why is it redundant for someone to point out a fact about the X Prize?

Was it redundant when you wrote, "The X Prize was only open to non-governmental organizations"?

Chris Koresko writes:

This reminds me of a comment made on a Space Show podcast recently by one of the former leading entrepreneurial rocket engineers (whose name escapes me at the moment, sorry). The guy said he had abandoned trying to build a private launch vehicle because of the red tape. That when they were trying it in the 1980s they basically needed to get a permit from the local FAA office to do a launch attempt, but now it's a huge effort to push the paperwork through. He characterized today's NASA as an agency whose primary mission is to spend money; whatever else they do is incidental.

NB, from memory but probably about right: SpaceX has spent less than $1B to develop a family of orbital launch vehicles and a reusable cargo ship. NASA spent about $7B to do a suborbital launch of a Shuttle SRB with some instruments and a dummy payload, plus a bunch of paper studies.

This is also in line with a comment on one of the Armadillo Aerospace videos, in which they show one of their small team behind a desk flipping through one of several large books of regulations and looking frustrated. They put up a screen saying (paraphrase) "How can these people live with themselves being grit in the gears of human progress?"

Look at the website for Beal Aerospace, which gave up its effort to build a large private launcher maybe seven years ago. Andrew Beal, who had been financing the company out of his own pocket, testified before Congress to try to keep them from funding his competitors. When they did it anyway, he bailed out, figuring there was no way he could compete against big aerospace companies with big subsidies.

My own company has somewhat related experience. I and others have proposed getting into the medical diagnostics business. We have tons of relevant skills and facilities and could probably do some good innovative work. But we have never gotten past the FDA regulations barrier -- it's stopped us before the word "go".

Anecdotal evidence all, but it's pointing in the same direction: Government is impeding progress.

Doc Merlin writes:

"Also, the mind boggles at an engineer acting as if there could be no possible externalities from firing a rocket." The externalities are probably fairly minimal compared to the benefit to society. I would say that net externalities are well below zero.

Besides,anyway, saying that the government should regulate externalities allows it to do absolutely anything in the name of "benefit to society." Also, I think, on the net, when government tries to get rid of negative externalities it creates more than it fixes, because identifying externalities is hard and subject to externalities itself.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, Bob Murphy.
To Chris Koresko,
In light of the red tape he mentioned, I asked if they had thought of doing it in some other country that regulated less. His answer was kind of vague: I had the impression he wasn't in on that decision. But he did mention Scandinavia as a possibility. I was thinking more of some island nation.

Jonathan Goff writes:

Good article. I've had the pleasure of meeting Dick Rutan in person about a month ago when he dropped by our shop there in Mojave (we're actually right across the street from Scaled Composites). He's an amazing guy. I'm not sure how many different weird planes he's flown in his lifetime, but it's more than most people.

As for the FAA stuff...my company also has to deal with them on a regular basis (we build smaller, Vertical Takeoff and Landing Rockets like this one). And as far as regulators go, most of the times they're not too unreasonable. The tortoise thing was due to the way Congress wrote the laws regarding spaceflight regulation a few years back. Before then, there were about a dozen different groups that could possibly weigh in to say no, but nobody with clear authority to say yes. Now the FAA handles all of that in a group called the AST (can't remember what the acronym stands for--I just design the rocket engines), which has a mandate to both protect the uninvolved public while promoting the development of the industry (like the FAA used to have on their aircraft side). The problem is that under the rules at the time of the X-Prize, a "launch license" was needed for flying any sort of rocket vehicle above a certain size (200,000lb*s of impulse, which works out to about a 1200lb vehicle with most common propellants--don't ask it's complicated). Launch licenses were considered (forgive me if I get the terminology wrong) a "major federal act", which instantly triggered EPA regulations, which happen to be waived for aircraft but not for rockets (aircraft have been given a FONSI--a "Finding of No Significant Impact", which means that so long as you stay within certain bounds, you don't need to do environmental paperwork to get permission to fly an airplane). It isn't the FAA's fault that the regulation was written this way, and in fact they're trying to get a FONSI for rockets using benign propellants (like most commercial rocket companies use).

Anyhow, I'm probably boring people to death by now, so I'll drop back into lurk mode unless someone has a question (email me at jongoff at gmail dot com if you want me to respond--I can't keep up on the comments here). Thanks for a fun to read blog for someone who's only slightly economically literate. :-)

~Jonathan Goff

Charley Hooper writes:

Interesting posting, David.

I used to work for NASA and can report that it is heavily politicized. NASA's first job is to keep Congress happy and then secondarily to do scientific work. While I worked with some brilliant people, the top brass at NASA was constantly making idiotic decisions.

Some shuttle tidbits. Not even the Russians had ever sent a human into space with a solid rocket because it's too dangerous; once it's started it can't be shut off. The design for the segmented solid rocket boosters for the shuttle was rated the worst of the design choices from an engineering perspective, but it was selected because Morton-Thiokol is based in Utah, Orrin Hatch's state. Hatch wanted a design that Morton-Thiokol could build and the remote location dictated the segmented design, which, with the required O-rings, led to the Challenger disaster.

The scientists I worked with hated the shuttle because each time it sneezed, our budgets were cut.

Like all government projects, the shuttle was sold on grand promises, yet when it failed to meet those expectations, it wasn't killed or replaced, it was given more money and a longer life. Welcome to the world of government "logic."

Chris Koresko writes:

@Jonathan Goff,

No boredom here. You guys (space entrepreneurs) are one of the few real bright spots in my impression of America's future right now. Keep it up, and God speed!

@David Henderson,

Scandinavia is less regulated than the US? If that's true, I've learned something interesting... and embarrassing.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Charley Hooper,
Thanks, Charley. Good story. There's at least an article here, if you're willing to write one.
@Chris Koresko,
Scandinavia less regulated than U.S. does sound weird. I'm just reporting what he said. While clearly Scandinavia is a more-regulated economy than that of the U.S., maybe it's less regulated on this issue? Just as the Netherlands has less drug regulation, it can happen.

Bob Calder writes:

I can think of two instances where "I must leave lest I soil my hands with the blood of a fool." has been voiced by a character.

Lawrence of Arabia and Ran.

Chris Koresko writes:

@Charley Hooper:

Your story about the Shuttle design is different from what I understood (based on an online MIT course, which is very interesting, incidentally) and a bunch of old memories.

My impression is that the Shuttle was originally sold as getting to a low launch cost (~$100/lb in ~1970 dollars) by having a very high flight-rate (weekly?) and airliner-like operations. It was to be fully reusable. A whole set of architectures were considered, including liquid strap-ons and fly-back liquid boosters. The solid strap-ons were chosen for the simple reason that the development cost was lower.

A bunch of extra requirements like cross-range capability (i.e., the ability to land far from the orbital track) got added when the Air Force was required to use the Shuttle. That must have made the wings heavier, cutting into payload... which meant bigger motors and more fuel to compensate.

In the end it was an amazing vehicle, but it never met the original goals that were set for it.

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