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Laudatio uitgesproken door prof. dr. ir. Clement Hiel

Laudatio voor Dhr. Burt Rutan
Uitgesproken door prof. dr. Clement Hiel

Mijne Excellenties,
Members of the Rutan Family,
Dames en Heren,

Mr. Burt Rutan werd geboren in 1943 in Portland (Oregon, USA). Hij groeide op toen onderzoeksvliegtuigen plots tien keer sneller konden vliegen dan enkele jaren voordien. Als kind zag hij Dr. Wernher von Braun in 1955 als gast optreden in de Walt Disney Televisieshow met illustraties en concepten voor ruimtereizen naar Mars. Het was een tijd van inspiratie, schitterende uitdagingen en grote doorbraken. De jonge Burt Rutan besliste dat hij lucht en ruimtevaart wou studeren en behaalde in 1965 zijn ingenieursdiploma aan de California Polytechnic University.

Upon graduation Mr. Rutan decided not to seek employment at a big company where he would be forced to work in parts design and detailing. Instead he decided to focus on whole airplanes and on the way they fly. He therefore started his early career as a Flight Test Projects Engineer with the U.S. Air Force, working on fighter spin tests and VSTOL (Very Short Takeoff and Landing) transport aircraft. As a young engineer he oversaw the test programs for fifteen military aircraft. Perhaps this is where he developed his motto “Experimentation Leads to Failure and Failure leads to Knowledge.”

Mr. Rutan had a vision! He wanted to show the world that airplanes could be built better, faster, and cheaper, and that he knew how to do it. In 1974, he founded the Rutan Aircraft Factory, and in 1982 he established the “Scaled Composites” Corporation. Under his leadership, these organizations have produced an astounding stream of innovations in aeronautical design. In aviation circles, Burt Rutan is considered the most influential aircraft designer of the second half of the 20th century.

In 1989, Burt Rutan was elected a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering which is a huge honor for any engineer or University professor throughout the world. His election citation reads “For leading the engineering design, construction, and testing of a series of remarkable aircraft, including the Voyager, the first unrefueled aircraft to circle the earth.”

On December 14, 1986 the voyager flew its unrefueled 42.212 km trip around the world. It was a proud moment for aviation and “Burt Rutan” suddenly became a household name. An important element in Mr. Rutan’s success is his mastery of the use of advanced composite materials. His company has explored and fine-tuned the manufacturing advantages of these remarkable materials. With this knowledge, he has designed and built many new and exciting aircraft of stunning beauty, functionality and performance. These trailblazing composite aircraft structures serve as our case studies in the aeronautical teaching program (LURU) at this university.

Mr. Rutan had a vision! He wanted to show the world that spacecraft could be built better, faster, safer and cheaper and that he knew how to do it. In 2003 he unveiled the existence of a private space program and he proceeded to design, build, and fly the only privately owned spaceship in history. On October 4, 2004 his team won the Xprize: a $10 million award for the first privately funded, non-governmental group to fly a spacecraft.

Evidently Mr. Rutan has already left his mark on the 21st century. In 2005 Time Magazine named him as “One of the 100 most influential people in the World.” He has proven that the “small guys” can build a spaceship and pull us into the future. He predicts that within 12 to 15 years, there will be tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people who will be able to enjoy the life-altering experience of space travel.

In Belgium, as in the rest of the world, Burt Rutan has been a role model for two generations of kids, university students, engineers, and faculty members. Particularly pertinent for the Free University of Brussels (VUB) is that he has proven to the world that a small, high-quality operation is capable of sustaining high performance, rising to the status of a role model, and retaining leadership. He has also taught us about the creation of sustainable scientific, and engineering environments where bold and breakthrough innovation is possible. As we move deeper into the 21st century, we will need to take his lessons at heart when addressing the needs for advanced engineering designs, materials, and process technologies to develop clean energy technologies, alternative fuels, emergency housing, etc.

Many of us were here in May 1993 when one of Mr. Rutan’s best friends, the late William Brandt Goldsworthy, stood here to accept the “Medal of Excellence” of the VUB faculty of Applied Sciences in honor of his genius in manufacturing with advanced composite materials.

This leads me to Mr. Rutan’s profound human side. When he realized in 2003 that his friend Mr. Goldsworthy was dying of cancer, and would not see his spaceship fly, he brought him over to his Scaled Composites headquarters for a private viewing. He spent the day showing Mr. Goldsworthy, in great detail, how it all was going to work. It must have been an event filled with a mixture of deep exhilaration, excitement, sadness, and joy.

Burt Rutan’s lead is to “Keep looking up... way, way UP!” In the coming years, as we watch the Rutan-designed space fleet blast off, we will all remember this 28th day of November 2007. Because on this day, on behalf of the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and of our Faculty of Engineering Sciences, I am proud that Mr. Burt Rutan has accepted this honorary doctoral degree.

Prof. Dr. Ir. Clement Hiel
28 November 2007