Space tourism pioneer Rutan announces retirement

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Win McNamee/Getty Images

Paul Allen (L), founder and Burt Rutan (R), designer of SpaceShipOne pose for photographs following a news conference to mark the donation of SpaceShipOne (shown in background) to the National Air and Space Museum October 5, 2005 in Washington, DC.

The aerospace engineer who designed the world’s first privately financed and piloted spacecraft has announced he’ll retire next year. Burt Rutan pioneered the concept of “space tourism” at his Mojave Desert headquarters just two hours north of Los Angeles.

Burt Rutan’s suborbital SpaceShipOne lifted off from his company’s desert airstrip six years ago on its inaugural voyage to space.

Hundreds of people traveled to the remote site to watch the winged spacecraft take flight.

“We were thinking about our generation," said one observer, "and what we wanna tell our kids, and we don’t wanna tell them the big event was 9/11. We wanna say the big event was the common man got to space, the regular citizen got to go up there.”

Rutan went on to win the $10 million “Ansari X Prize” for his team’s work on SpaceShipOne. After its success, Rutan joined with Virgin Galactic to build a fleet of second-generation spaceships.

The project experienced a setback three years ago after three engineers died in an explosion at Rutan’s Scaled Composites factory. The work is still on track and engineers hope to lead tourist trips to suborbital space soon.

The 67-year-old aerospace innovator stepped aside from daily responsibilities at Scaled Composites shortly after the deadly explosion. His formal retirement follows two years after he underwent open-heart surgery.

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