02Sep2018

Next Big Thing In Space Travel?

Billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has revealed new details of an ambitious plan to build the world’s largest aircraft, which he claims will one day be used to send humans into space at a fraction of the cost of rockets.

The Stratolaunch will be more than twice the width of a Boeing 747 Jumbo jet. Photo / AP Other By: Matthew Field

Stratolaunch Systems, a start-up owned by Allen, aims to build a plane with a wingspan of 384ft, more than twice the width of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Dubbed the Stratolaunch, the aircraft is due to be equipped with 28 wheels, two fuselages and six Pratt & Whitney engines. The project puts Allen in competition with another billionaire aviator, the Hollywood pioneer Howard Hughes.

On its short maiden flight in 1947, Hughes’ H-4 Hercules flying boat, nicknamed the Spruce Goose, set the record for the largest aircraft wingspan at 320ft. The Spruce Goose never flew again but its record still stands. Allen’s ultimate goal is for the Stratolaunch to act as a flying launch pad for satellite-carrying rockets and manned spaceplanes — a system that could dramatically drive down the cost of space travel.

The company has revealed it is working on a family of rocket-powered launch vehicles and is in the early stages of creating a reusable spacecraft. It has shared designs for two medium launch vehicles (MLVs) that could carry 7500lb into orbit by 2022. A “heavy” variant is also in “early development” that would transport more than 13,200lb.
There is currently no date for when the reusable spaceplane will  be completed.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Photo / AP

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Photo / AP

“We are excited to share for the first time some details about the development of our own, proprietary Stratolaunch launch vehicles, with which we will offer a flexible launch capability unlike any other,” said Stratolaunch chief executive Jean Floyd. “Whatever the payload, whatever the orbit, getting your satellite into space will soon be as easy as booking an airline flight.” There is competition for space on the major rocket launch sites around the world, and by firing a rocket from a plane, pilots could effectively bypass a slow or delayed ground launch.

In this way, Stratolaunch hopes to make space travel “routine”. Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft in 1975 with Bill Gates. He went on to found Stratolaunch in 2011 along with aircraft engineer Burt Rutan, who later left the project. Since its inception, other projects such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX have successfully tested and launched their rocket designs. While SpaceX has sought to make space flights cheaper using reusable rockets, Stratolaunch believes rockets can be launched from a larger, mothership aircraft high in the atmosphere.

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