Nov. 7, 2007
Space Pioneers' Advice: Fear Not Failure
"You will do great things if you don’t talk yourself out of trying"
Test pilots Dick Rutan and Brian Binnie, whose exploits have helped open outer space to future commercial travel, fielded questions from students from throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area about everything from the challenges of manned space flight to managing a creative team at SMU’s Turner Construction Student Forum Nov. 6. They visited the University to speak in the Tate Distinguished Lecture Series.
Rutan was the pilot of Voyager, which in December 1986 set the record for a non-stop, non-refueled flight around the world. He made the trip in 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds - a mark that stands to this day.
Binnie completed the first and last powered flights of SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 was the first manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice within the span of a 14-day period. Both pilots work with Scaled Composites, LLC, an aerospace and specialty composites development company founded by engineer and inventor Burt Rutan and located in Mojave, California.
At one point, Rutan asked a question of the students: “How many of you think Albert Einstein was right when he said it was not possible to fly faster than the speed of light? ...If you raised your hand, then shame on you. When I was your age, they were saying the same thing about the speed of sound, and guess what happened?
“You’re young, and you have tools that can do things no one can yet imagine,” Rutan added. “You will do great things if you don’t talk yourself out of trying, if you start looking at barriers as opportunities for greatness.”
When do you think space travel will be available to the wider public?
Binnie: I don’t think it’s right around the corner, but the playing field is changing, and that’s a good thing. There are a lot of people out there who are fed up and tired waiting for the government to figure it out and make it available for us. People now are trying to figure this out for themselves, and unlike previous efforts, they’re pretty well funded. There are self-made billionaires out there who are passionate about space and are bringing their own money to the table, hiring a lot of smart people. If it’s any measure of progress, there are spaceports springing up left and right. They have nothing to fly, yet, but they’re anticipating a new wave, a different approach to space travel than we’ve ever seen. I think it’s healthy.
What do you think is the greatest asset of Scaled Composites, the company for which you work?
Binnie: The attitude. We have confidence in nonsense, if you will. Some people would call it “thinking outside the box,” but sometimes it’s not realizing there is a box. Burt Rutan is not a guy who looks at what’s tried and true and conventional and says, “I want to do that.”
SpaceShipOne is a pretty good example. No matter how far or fast into space you travel, you eventually come home, and that’s the really tough challenge. Re-entering the atmosphere requires very fine control, and when a pilot is flying that way, that’s all he can do. Burt looked at that and said, “That’s not satisfactory.” SpaceShipOne is built so that no matter the direction from which you come back into the atmosphere – forward, backward, upside down – the vehicle will right itself. The critics told him not to do it, that he was going to hurt someone. It was too risky. It hadn’t been tried before. But we did it.
Rutan: My input toward my younger brother’s genius was periodically to tell him, “Burt, there’s no fine way that will work.” But it generally always did. And I should say, too, that not everything he’s tried has worked. Our mother used to tell us, “You will learn more from failure than you do from success.” Failure is an incredible opportunity for learning. I asked Burt once where he came up with all his ideas, and he said, “A person’s ability to deal with chaos and nonsense will define his creativity.” And if you look at some of the things he does, they can only be from the pools of chaos and nonsense. He goes there to find solutions sometimes, but the biggest thing is having the courage to try. You won’t always fail.
As a pilot, can you explain the difference between flying aircraft and flying spacecraft?
Binnie: We think of SpaceShipOne as an airplane with a rocket engine. It has the same flight-control sophistication as a general-aviation Piper or Cessna. It has no booster controls, no hydraulic system, no computer driving any services. Since the space program started in the 1960s, only three people have actually flown themselves into space – two from Scaled Composites, and one X-15 pilot. We were flying into space right from the start. All the skills we use as airplane pilots we also use to fly SpaceShipOne. It’s a real thrill, a real hands-on experience.
What do you see as your most important accomplishments?
Binnie: We’re still alive, aren’t we? I think the theme of what we’re doing at Scaled is that small teams can have big dreams. Tried and true is not necessarily the way to go. There’s a lot of opportunity out there now that didn’t exist 10 years ago. This is a whole new market that is untapped. Think of the Internet when it first was envisioned. It was a government network, available only to a privileged few, and it just kind of leaked out into the public sector. Now it’s out there, uncontrolled, and it’s a great thing. Space is just waiting for that sort of energy and enthusiasm to come. To participate in a company that chose to show that this is possible is a great thing.
How do you harness all the creativity and differences of opinion in a small team toward a single goal? How do you manage the whole teamwork process?
Binnie: We have a very flat organization at Scaled – you have Burt, and then essentially you have everyone else. Burt provides the spark and the vision and the direction, and everyone else feeds off of that. We’re all friends and have a natural sense of responsibility to each other. And Burt has helped to instill the idea of “Question, not defend.” When he or anyone else puts an idea out there, we question it until we get it right. Our safety record bears that out.
Rutan: If you want to accomplish something, you need to have an exciting goal and then manage it properly. When you work in an organization run by a bloody committee or a wishy-washy manager, it’s one of the most frustrating situations you’ll ever find in your life. It’s also a formula for failure.
Last year, when Stephen Hawking was here at SMU, he said we needed to invest more in manned space flight in order to survive as a species. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Rutan: When that young president stood up in the early ’60s and said, “We’re going to go to the moon,” he gave a timeframe – during that decade – and he also wrote the check. And his philosophy was that we weren’t going to go because it was easy, but because it was hard. It’s a profound statement about the character of that Mercury-Gemini-Apollo generation, the people who accomplished that. They were young, eager people with a deadline, and they were out to do things. They managed the risks and were successful.
And what happened after that? Every time NASA flies another manned mission, they should be pushing the envelope, going faster and farther and developing new techniques. And instead they’re trying to run an airline and not even doing a very good job of it. And the fact that we’re going back to the moon using 1960s-era technology – somebody ought to be bloody ashamed of themselves. The company that got the contract for this new moon shot, the primary criteria was that they didn’t have to invent anything different than what was invented back in the ’60s. And they got the bloody contract!
That’s not who we are. That’s not how we do things. That’s not how you explore the cosmos, for crying out loud. I’m upset about that, Burt is really upset about it, and maybe you ought to be, too. There’s no such thing as being level anymore. You’re either advancing or you’re in decay, and the manned space program has been in decay for the past four decades.
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