Since I got to know him in 1974, some things about Rutan didn’t change; his Elvis-impersonator sideburns, for instance (though even they did experience occasional periods of shrinkage). He always had a lively sense of humor, and when I visualize his face I most often see it broadening into a laugh across a table at a Mojave cafe. But he changed in other ways. Never a small ego, he mellowed over the years — I thought his fourth wife, Tonya, got some credit for this, though Time too played its usual part — and grew increasingly willing, sometimes even eager, to admit errors and share credit for successes.
He became less and less interested in private flying, particularly after a near-death experience in Boomerang (no fault of the airplane) and after losing his medical to cardiac problems. He became a committed golfer and, in an evolutionary development that I have seen in a few other people as well, he began to denigrate his old love, saying that he took more pleasure in honing his golf swing than flying his airplanes. When atmospheric flight ceased to excite him, space flight took its place, and he famously made his mark on it. SpaceShipOne, he said, gave him the most satisfaction of all of his creations. Nevertheless, his last design was a hybrid-electric light airplane whose first flight took place just before his retirement.
After winning the Ansari X-Prize with SpaceShipOne in 2004, he spent less and less time at Scaled, and in April 2011, a couple of months before his 68th birthday, he was succeeded as CEO by Doug Shane, who had been with the company since joining it, just out of college and literally fresh-faced, at its inception in 1982.
Rutan has sometimes been criticized for claiming as his own certain ideas — for example, the loaded canard or the dethermalizer-like re-entry system of his suborbital spaceplanes — that others had had before him. Actually, it has more often been the case that writers, including me, have, through historical ignorance or a desire to magnify their subject, attributed to him inventions that he never actually said were his. But which of his creations was entirely new, which invented anew, and which was ingeniously adapted and transformed from some historical precedent is really not important. He did things no one else thought of doing or believed possible, and in ways that no one else had tried. He had a knack for succeeding where others failed. The sheer variety of his creations was unprecedented. Some designers return again and again to certain trademark formulas; Rutan seemed always to start afresh. Ambition, energy, showmanship and ability converged in him to produce a career, and a man, such as we are not likely to see soon again.
And check out our additional retrospective Rutan photo gallery, taken from the archives of Flying.