Kids’ imaginations soar with ‘Rocket Man’ |

Kids’ imaginations soar with ‘Rocket Man’

John Colson
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

The kids called him “Rocket Man,” and it was clear he caught the imaginations of Basalt fourth-graders who perhaps were dreaming of interplanetary travel.The students stared awestruck at drawings of Richard Lugg’s latest project – a sleek-looking VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) plane with the equivalent of helicopter rotors built into the plane’s body – that he is designing for military and commercial markets.And Lugg, rocket scientist and bicycle racer, took it all in stride Wednesday morning while chatting about his life and work.Lugg, 49, was in Kristi Wingenbach’s math and science room at Basalt Elementary School, thanks to Lugg’s longtime friendship with P.D. Ash, a local real estate broker and father of one of Wingenbach’s students.Ash asked his old college buddy to stop by on his way to a business conference in Los Angeles to tell the tale of his rather unusual life and perhaps inspire the students. After hearing Lugg talk, Ash was hoping, the kids would take more interest in science and math classes than they might otherwise, “so he can hire you guys for his company … when you get out of college,” he told the roughly two dozen students.

Not how he planned itLugg’s life as a scientist got off to what may strike many locals as a familiar stuttering start. The son of an aeronautical scientist, he went to college for a couple of years, working toward a mathematics major before dropping out to come to Aspen in 1975-76 and be a ski bum and work at the old Red Onion restaurant and bar.He returned to college in Maine, where he majored in math and minored in geology, and thought of how he had often told his dad he planned get a job building spaceships one day.”I’d tell him that, and he’d look at me and say, ‘Oh, right,'” Lugg said.Lugg attended graduate school in Atlanta, took up road-bike racing, continued graduate school in North Carolina, pursued a doctorate in Arizona, moved back to Maine and got a job in a bicycle shop. He wondered in frustration about his future until he met a customer who owned an international aerospace company. After the two had talked, the man offered Lugg a job as “director of technology and strategy.” He started flying all over the world, working on various projects, getting on a first-name status with industry bigwigs and working for big multinational firms such as Pratt & Whitney and General Dynamics.

“You just never know what’s going to happen in life,” he said, noting that in 1996 he ended up working for NASA contractors on the X-33, the next generation of space shuttles, thereby fulfilling his prediction to his father. NASA ditched the X-33 after an explosive accident.Bouncing from company to company, he was learning the intricacies of corporate management as well as the science behind efforts to replace heavy steel with lightweight composite material in aerospace engine construction. Ultimately he started up his own company, Sonicblue Aerospace, where he is the chief executive officer.Kids loved himBut the kids didn’t hear all that. They started pelting him with questions right off the bat, after he opened his talk with drawings and descriptions of his new VTOL project.A plane that takes off like a helicopter, flies like a jet, is powered by a hybrid gas-electric engine and has a futuristic design caught their imaginations immediately, even though a prototype is not expected to actually make its first test flight until late 2010.

One boy asked if the plane will carry commercial passengers some day.”Yes, and we don’t need a runway,” Lugg replied. The plane, he said, could fly nonstop from New York to London in less than two hours and land in a cricket stadium, or “We could fly to, say, the mall in Aspen and land there” for a shopping trip.A girl asked if there would be beds for passengers to sleep on, and Lugg paused for a moment before saying, “That’s a good idea. I’m going to have to talk to our engineers about that.”With o-board computers that essentially can fly the plane while the pilot sleeps, the aircraft, he said, is “like a video game” and “a child that is 8 years old could learn how to fly this in a week.” That brought gasps from the kids.Noting that much of Lugg’s inspiration comes from his own imagination, which kids have in abundance, Ash told the students in parting, “Don’t ever let anyone kill your dreams and your ideas.”John Colson’s e-mail address is