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Legend, entrepreneur team up as odd couple of space travel

By Alicia Chang
Ap Science Writer

LOS ANGELES — One is a secretive aviation legend who made history by designing the first private manned rocket to reach space. The other is a publicity-savvy entrepreneur shooting to take his famous brand literally out of this world.

American engineer Burt Rutan and British tycoon Sir Richard Branson may seem like they come from different planets. Yet the improbable duo are in the same orbit — forming the Spaceship Co. in 2005 to launch ordinary people into space without government help.

ďYou have a billionaire funding a rebel inventor. Putting those two together makes perfect sense,Ē said space enthusiast Peter Diamandis, founder of the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, who has known both men for nearly a decade.

Aviation history has other odd couples: The wealthy Harry Guggenheim financed the early rocket work of the loner Robert Goddard; international arms dealer Charles Flint helped the Wright brothers sell their airplanes outside the United States; telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell enlisted Glenn Curtiss, a brash motorcycle manufacturer, to help build a practical plane.

Now itís Branson, the adventuring chairman of the multibillion-dollar Virgin Group of companies, who is investing at least $200 million for a fleet of suborbital passenger spaceships being designed by Rutan. Rutan heads the obliquely named Scaled Composites LLC, the kind of techie operation where a new milling machine is announced on its Web site with an exclamation point.

Newest ship design

Rutanís latest effort is based on his SpaceShipOne prototype, a shuttlecock-shaped, hybrid rocket motor-powered craft that became the first private, piloted vehicle to reach space. For the achievement, the project collected $10 million from the X Prize Foundation in 2004.

Since the two teamed up, a rush of do-it-yourself players have angled to break into the fledgling space tourism market. But the polar opposite personalities have grabbed the spotlight, partly because of Rutanís track record and Bransonís aggressive marketing.

How the new space race plays out is being closely watched by space and business experts. There are many unknowns, including long-term business prospects and safety. A single fatal crash, after all, could hobble the infant industry.

Rutan and Branson have repeatedly said safety is their main focus. Spaceship Co. is their first venture into space, though they have known each other since 1990 and collaborated on the record-breaking Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer aircraft.

For most of his life, Rutan, 63, had a single-minded focus on pushing the envelope of experimental aircraft design. Described by some as a genius, he has designed some 40 unique aircraft and now has his sights set on space. He has said he really wants to go to the moon before he dies.

Branson, 56, is a swashbuckling daredevil flitting between projects. A high school dropout, he built the Virgin empire into a world brand. The Virgin logo is slapped in some of the most terrestrial places — music stores, cell phones, airlines and graphic novels, to name a few. A decade ago, Branson trademarked Virgin Galactic with the hopes of ultimately flying the brand in space.

The men differ in their appearance as well as their social circles. With his 1970s-style muttonchops and leather jacket, Rutan works among engineers, technicians and pilots on a wind-swept Mojave Desert airfield.

Branson — with his golden, tousled hair and goatee — hobnobs with celebrities, relaxes on his private Necker Island and makes cameo appearances in Hollywood movies.

Their differences donít end there. They have a different philosophy on publicity.

So far, any announcements on when the first customers might experience zero gravity has been one-sided, with details only trickling from Bransonís Virgin Galactic camp.

Branson recently told a trade show in California that construction of the Rutan-designed SpaceShipTwo will be ready within a year followed by another year of flight tests. If all goes well, Virgin officials say the spaceship will be unveiled by early next year with the maiden commercial launch in 2009.

Rutan, on the other hand, has been relatively silent. He would only confirm that he is designing SpaceShipTwo and the mothership aircraft that will launch it. Despite the buzz by Virgin Galactic, Rutan has not publicly released a schedule for completing work.

Rutan told The Associated Press: ďIt is quite some time off.Ē

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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