On my morning subway ride today, I learned about the aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan. Rutan, described as “unconventional” in a recent Economist profile, has spent the last four decades designing innovative planes, flying cars, reusable space planes, and a flying spacecraft launchpad.
Having grown up with NASA, the Jetsons, Stars Wars and numerous other cultural and historic references, space is what futuristic innovation looked like when we were kids. But the reality is that it happens in a sterile, secretive government bureaucracy/government contractor cost-plus committee environment that is the opposite of the new economy innovation environment. And glorious as it appeared when the space shuttle took off and landed, the truth is that the space program has not been innovative given the time and money poured in. Many have remarked on this. As Rutan says:
Space travel is the only technology that is more dangerous and more expensive now than it was in its first year. Fifty years after Yuri Gagarin, the space shuttle ended up being more dangerous and more expensive to fly than those first throwaway rockets, even though large portions of it were reusable. It’s absurd.
Elon Musk (who deserves his own post, coming soon) is the most famous person working on resolving this contradiction with commercialized efforts of space flight. But, back to Rutan (Musk is a partner on executing Rutan’s design for the flying spacecraft launchpad).
Rutan’s design approach has more of a Silicon Valley feel that we’re used to in software and consumer electronics. Seeing this applied on one of the truly big problems of our dreams is fascinating in a couple of ways.
First, Rutan’s approach is more individual and aesthetic than traditional space design: function and form must coexist. He says:
I choose attractive designs over ugly ones all the time. To my mind, things that are efficient tend to be beautiful, like long, slender, smooth wings. And it’s usually justified by them being lighter or easier to build, or having better performance.
It sounds very Jobs-ian.
Second, there is the instinct to not follow the herd. He draws from his four decades of flight innovation the lesson that executing on innovation is about individual belief and ability to tune out the skepticism:
At various times over 20 years, I did preliminary designs for aircraft like the Stratolaunch. For that whole time I was encouraging us to do something that almost everyone else felt you could not do. But you never run into breakthroughs when you say, ‘You can’t do that.’ You run into them when you’ve found something that doesn’t make sense and you find a way to make it work. A breakthrough always starts with nonsense.