Not many companies are going to build a spacecraft like Scaled Composites LLC, but Kevin Mickey encouraged a Society of Plastics Engineers audience to take a chance.
``We need to stop talking about what we're going to do,'' said Mickey, vice president of program management. ``Stop making PowerPoint presentations and, at some point, we've got to do it.''
Scaled Composites certainly is doing it, in heart-stopping fashion. The aerospace and composite development firm in Mojave, Calif., run by Burt Rutan, has developed radically new airplane types.
Now, Scaled Composites is playing a key role in ``space tourism'' - taking civilians on the world's most intense roller-coaster ride. On Oct. 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne, built by Rutan's company, became the first privately funded, manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet, by reaching 367,442 feet. The craft did that twice within a span of 14 days, to pick up the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Scaled Composites has joined forces with British billionaire Richard Branson to build a fleet of commercial spaceships. Branson has created a space tourism company called Virgin Galactic, and he expects to fly in 2008.
The SpaceShipOne project was privately funded; the government had nothing to do with it.
``As we say in Mojave, this ain't Cape Canaveral,'' Mickey said. Scaled Composites employs just 124 people, and he said only about a third of them worked on the spaceship project at any given time.
``We started out to establish that cheap access to space is possible,'' Mickey said of Scaled Composites' spaceship efforts, which began in the mid-1990s.
Several times in his speech, he acknowledged commercial space tourism ``sounds crazy.'' But he pointed out there are several other companies looking at the field. Then he showed a video that kept SPE members spellbound. The spaceship was attached to an airplane that carried it up to 46,000 feet. With a fiery rocket blast, the craft swung away from the plane and shot straight up, into suborbital space.
Pilot Brian Binnie experienced 3½ minutes of weightlessness before SpaceShipOne began to come down. After a steep, spiraling descent, he landed it like a glider. ``We won the $10 million, but most importantly, we proved it could be done,'' Mickey said.
U.S. industry has become afraid of risk. Fear paralyzes people and cuts off innovation, he said.
``It's not hard, folks. It's just not that hard. We've all become so afraid of taking risks - afraid of litigation,'' Mickey told the plastics engineers. ``I think we're moving through things so slowly that we're saying, `Well if I wait long enough, if I ask enough people, somebody's going tell me no. Some bureaucrat's going to tell me I can't take risks going forward. `Whew, my prayer's been answered - I don't have to take any risks.' ''