Following the recent retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen is making his mark on the race to space with a $200 million investment to build the world’s largest airplane. The plane, whose wingspan will be 380 feet, will be capable of carrying and launching into space a multi-stage booster rocket weighing up to 490,000 pounds.
Allen teamed up with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan to create Stratolaunch Systems, an air-launch system that will provide orbital access to space with greater safety, cost effectiveness and flexibility. Allen and Rutan worked together in 2004 on the SpaceShipOne project, the first privately funded, manned rocket ship to leave Earth’s atmosphere.
"I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne—to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system," Allen said. "We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”
The company will build a mobile launch system, including an aircraft carrier, developed by Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites. The carrier will be powered by six Boeing 747 engines and operate from a large spaceport like the Kennedy Space Center, requiring a 12,000-foot-long runway.
The launch system will also utilize a multi-stage booster, manufactured by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, and a state-of-the-art mating and integration system built by aerospace engineering company Dynetics.
Allen has employed Gary Went, a former chief engineer at NASA, to be the Stratolaunch Systems CEO and President. The board will also include former NASA administrator Mike Griffin.
Stratolaunch plans to conduct flight testing beginning in 2016 and hopes to create a routine mission schedule for the carrier in the future. The first trips will take unmanned payloads into space, but the goal is to launch people into low earth orbit.