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Rocket Man

Aviation legend and convention-buster Burt Rutan leads the charge among civilians out to claim the point position on manned spaceflight. Will such barnstormers of space supplant NASA?

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The high desert 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles was once the bottom of an ancient sea. Today highways run arrow-straight through the desolate terrain, past crooked Joshua trees that stand like sentinels. At an airport near the old mining town of Mojave, rows of mothballed jetliners bake in the desiccating heat.

In vivid contrast, the Mojave Airport also offers a window on the future. Here sit the Civilian Flight Test Center and some of the most advanced aircraft in the world. For more than 60 years, the real attraction of this place has been the azure dome overhead, where a flier can see for 30 miles, 360 days a year. It is pilot heaven, home of Edwards Air Force Base, and the birthplace of the sonic boom.

Mojave also is home to Burt Rutan. In a world that celebrates test pilots and fighter jocks, Mr. Rutan has attained his own special status as one of the nation's most visionary aircraft designers.

To the public at large, Rutan is best known as the creator of Voyager, the willowy plane that hangs in the lobby at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The propeller-driven aircraft made aviation history in 1986, flying nonstop around the world on a single tank of gas.

To aviation enthusiasts, Rutan is renowned for creating designs that marry lightweight materials with sophisticated ideas. His home-built craft have set new standards for speed, distance, and fuel economy.

Now 60, the crusty engineer with the trademark muttonchops is poised to again seize the public imagination by applying his do-it-yourself approach in a quest for space - one that deliberately excludes NASA. And even as Washington dreams - one year after the loss of Columbia - about moon bases and missions to Mars, some experts maintain that it is private individuals like Rutan who will shape the race for the final frontier.

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