Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced today that he is funding the development of a new space transportation system envisioned by aerospace designer Burt Rutan that uses a mammoth airplane to launch cargo, and eventually people, into orbit. Their new venture is called Stratolaunch Systems Inc.
Their plane will be the biggest ever built, with a wingspan of 385 feet – longer than a football field – a weight of 1.2 million pounds and six 747 engines, PC Magazine reported. The idea is that the plane will carry a space capsule to about 30,000 feet, where it will release it, the Wall Street Journal reported. The spacecraft will use its own booster rocket to hop into orbit.
According to the Wall Street Journal:
The ultimate goal—which has eluded corporate and government rocket scientists for decades—is to build a reliable and flexible aircraft-based launch option capable of hurling satellites as heavy as a pickup truck into low-earth orbit. Mr. Allen and his team hope to accomplish all that for a fraction of current launch costs, which can run anywhere from $30 million to more than $200 million, depending on the weight of the payload and height of the orbit.
Another benefit of Stratoluanch’s design is that the plane can fly more than 1,300 miles without refueling to alternative launch locations if bad weather prevents cargo from going into space as planned, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“When I was growing up, America’s space program was the symbol of aspiration,” Allen said at a news conference in Seattle, The Associated Press reported. “For me, the fascination with space never ended. I never stopped dreaming what might be possible.”
Stratolaunch, based in Huntsville, Ala., will be run by CEO Gary Wentz, a former senior National Aeronautics and Space Administration official, according to the Wall Street Journal. Stratolaunch will work with another tech-entrepreneur-turned-space-explorer, Elon Musk of PayPal, whose company, SpaceX, has built a successful commercial rocket, the AP reported.
The first launch is tentatively scheduled for 2016, PC Magazine reported, with test flights beginning in 2015.