Share This Article

Burt Rutan’s Race to Space: The Magician of Mojave and His Flying Innovations

by Dan Linehan, Zenith Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2011, $30

With his ruggedly fit frame, signature sideburns and perennial blue-jeans, Burt Rutan looks more like the Marlboro Man than a world-class scientific genius. Still, as Dan Linehan writes in this colorful coffee-table volume, Rutan created 44 air and space vehicles from the two companies he founded, and every one of these flying machines is different from anything else that ever took to the skies. Rutan, in short, demonstrates that a private-sector spirit of innovation still lives in America.

Remember the mostly fiberglass Voyager, which, in 1986, piloted by Rutan’s brother Dick and Jeana Yeager, became the first aircraft to circle the world nonstop without refueling? Or SpaceShipOne, the suborbital, air-launched spaceplane that in 2004 made Mike Melvill the first licensed commercial astronaut and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize? They’re both in the National Air and Space Museum, yet remain more advanced than almost anything flying today—save Rutan’s own later designs like SpaceShipTwo.

Linehan gives us a look at most of Rutan’s revolutionary craft, including the VariViggen homebuilt (inspired by Sweden’s Saab 37 Viggen fighter), the smaller VariEze family and the futuristic and beloved but uneconomical Beech Starship. The “Magician of Mojave” also gave us the Quickie, Defiant, Long-EZ, AD-1, AMSOIL biplane racer, Grizzly, Solitaire, Catbird, Boomer ang, Proteus and White Knight, all of which are covered.

The book takes us from Rutan’s post-collegiate days as an Air Force test engineer working the kinks out of the F-4 Phantom II to his modern-era space collaborations with Paul Allen, Richard Branson and others. Linehan writes that his book isn’t “a biography or catalog of airplane and vehicle data,” in part because of the secretive culture of Rutan’s Mojave, Calif., company, Scaled Composites, but this book is comprehensive—at least when it comes to hardware.

Don’t expect to read about corporate politics or about the feuding between Dick Rutan and Yeager during their marathon globe-girdling flight. The text is comprehensive and informative but bland, as if its subject had subsidized it. Rutan didn’t, though he did review manuscript pages during the book’s preparation.

You’ll want this book for its spectacular diagrams and photos, most of them in color, and also as a handy reference to Rutan’s aircraft and spacecraft. In the post-shuttle era, the Obama administration’s spaceflight policy deemphasizes government (meaning NASA) and asks much of the private sector. This celebration of a great aeronautical engineer’s triumphs will make us admire Burt Rutan more than ever. And we may well wonder how our nation can produce more like him.


Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.