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“Testing leads to failure, and failure leads to understanding,” Burt Rutan once said. For anyone in the STEM field, failure is an inevitable part of our careers as we tackle new challenges everyday in the workplace. Unlike perfectly set problems on school exams, we face messy, “impossible” problems that no one knows the exact solution to in real life, and in the process of finding a practical solution, we fail continuously and repeatedly. Thus, developing tenacity is crucial for all STEM students, so that we are well-prepared to handle the stress and demands of the profession. If you are currently a STEM student searching for a role model with an iron will, look no further. Meet Burt Rutan, one of the most prolific and talented aerospace engineers of the century.

Rutan has always had the passion and aptitude for building planes. As a child, he often won model plane competitions in the neighborhood with his brother and gained a reputation of being a “clever designer.” Before he obtained his driver license, he would have his mother drive him around so that he could test out how well his plane flew by sticking it out of the window. When he was in college at California State Polytechnic University, Rutan even built his own small wind tunnel and installed it atop his car to help him refine his designs. These experiments led him to build the VariViggen, his first full-size plane.

In 1965, he graduated from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo with a BS degree in aeronautical engineering and went on to work as a civilian flight test project engineer for the U.S. Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base, analyzing the aerodynamics of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom fighters, which were crashing in Vietnam from in-flight loss of control more often than from enemy fire. In 1972, he left to become Director of Development of the BD-5 aircraft for Bede Aircraft in Newton, Kansas. It was during this time that Rutan got his first full-size homemade plane (the VariViggen) flying, and he sold several hundred sets of plans to amateur builders. Afterwards, he and his wife Carolyn left Kansas and Bede in 1974 and moved to California to establish the Rutan Aircra