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Paul Allen's Stratolaunch: Grand plan for next-gen space travel

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen forms Stratolaunch Systems with Burt Rutan. The company plans to build the largest aircraft ever made, and one capable of quick turnarounds on orbital flights.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
An artist's rendering of the new launch craft and spaceship from Paul Allen and Burt Rutan's new company, Stratolaunch Systems. Stratolaunch Systems

Billionaire Paul Allen today announced his grand ambition for the next generation of manned space travel: the largest aircraft ever built, which would be capable of orbital missions with quick turnarounds, greater safety, and better cost-effectiveness than anything previously launched.

At a press conference this morning in Seattle, Allen--a co-founder of Microsoft--along with Burt Rutan unveiled their new company, Stratolaunch Systems. Allen and Rutan previously collaborated on the creation of SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X Prize for being the first privately funded spacecraft to leave the Earth's atmosphere.

Now, Allen and Rutan are at it again, and at their Seattle event, they announced a next-generation mobile launch system that, at a cost that Allen said was "an order of magnitude" higher than SpaceShipOne, could completely shake up the world of manned and cargo spaceflight.

The new launch system has several elements. First, it has a giant carrier aircraft that will be built by Rutan's Scaled Composites. Second, it will have a multistage booster made by Elon Musk's SpaceX. And finally, it will have "a state-of-the-art mating and integration system allowing the carrier aircraft to safely carry a booster weighing up to 490,000 pounds." That element will be manufactured by Dynetics.

In a statement today, the company outlined its plans:

Stratolaunch Systems will bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions. Plans call for a first flight within five years. The air-launch-to-orbit system will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems. Stratolaunch's quick turnaround between launches will enable new orbital missions as well as break the logjam of missions queued up for launch facilities and a chance at space. Rutan, who has joined Stratolaunch Systems as a board member, said he was thrilled to be back working with Allen. "Paul and I pioneered private space travel with SpaceShipOne, which led to Virgin Galactic's commercial suborbital SpaceShipTwo Program.

The Stratolaunch carrier aircraft will truly be massive. It is expected to have a wingspan of 380 feet--longer than a football field. As Rutan put it during the press conference, "You should never show this airplane, or a model of it, without right next to it, showing a plane that we know how big it is, like a little 747."

A 12,000-foot runway
The carrier aircraft will actually utilize some of Boeing's most famous plane--six 747 engines will power it. But because it will have a takeoff weight of more than 1.2 million pounds, it needs a runway at least 12,000 feet long in order to get off the ground. It's likely, Stratolaunch says, that the aircraft will need to take off from a place like Kennedy Space Center.

But the manufacture of the Stratolaunch system will take place at the Mojave Air and Space Port, in Mojave, Calif. That is where Rutan's Scaled Composites is located, as well as the factory where Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic will be making its SpaceShipTwo rocket and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

Stratolaunch said that its new system will be capable of taking passengers into low-Earth orbit, but its initial efforts are expected to be focused on cargo. "Human flights," the company said in its announcement, "will follow after safety, reliability, and operability are demonstrated."

Clearly, though, it will be years before the system takes flight. Stratolauch said that it should be at least five years before the first flight. But then, the project could be capable of powering the dreams of future space enthusiasts.

"We have plenty and many challenges ahead of us," said Allen at the press conference today. "But by the end of the decade...Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit [and will] give tomorrow's children something to search for in the night sky."

Update (Tuesday, 11:51 a.m. PT): This story now includes specifications for the Stratolaunch project.