A giant airplane that can launch a rocket carrying cargo and humans into orbit is the future of space travel, billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said. The first test flight of the ambitious venture by Allen's new company Stratolaunch Systems is not scheduled until 2015, but partners in the project vowed it would revolutionize orbital travel in the post-space shuttle era.
Using engines from six Boeing 747 jets, the biggest airliner ever built would tote a rocket made by SpaceX and be able to launch payloads, satellites, and some day, humans, into low-Earth orbit. While he declined to say how much he was investing, Allen said it would be more than he spent on SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 was the first commercial craft to complete a suborbital flight and reportedly cost about $25 million to develop.
Designs for the massive jet with a wingspan greater than a football field, a collaboration with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan who designed SpaceShipOne, are at an advanced stage and a hangar is under construction in the Mojave desert. Talks are under way about potential take-off points, since the plane would need a 12,000 foot runway, available at larger airports and air force bases. The aircraft would use six 747 engines, have a gross weight of more than 1.2 million pounds and a wingspan of more than 380 feet. Advantages include the flexibility to launch from a larger number of locations, and potential cargo markets include the communications satellite industry, and NASA and Department of Defense unmanned scientific satellites.
The announcement adds a new company to the race to replace the US space shuttle by offering an alternative made by private industry for carrying humans to low-Earth orbit. The end of the space shuttle after 30 years has left Russia as the sole nation capable of carrying astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost per seat that will rise to $63 million in the coming years.
Three subcontractors on the project include Scaled Composites which is building the aircraft, SpaceX which is contributing a multi-stage booster rocket based on its Falcon 9, and Dynetics which is mating the aircraft to the booster. The plane would take off and while in flight, deploy the rocket and send cargo into low-Earth orbit. The first test flight could take place in 2015, and the first launch could happen by 2016.