A rendering shows a Stratolaunch rocket slung beneath a plane that carries it to 30,000 feet before the two craft separate, allowing the rocket to be shot into space. Illustrates STRATOLAUNCH (category a), by Guy Gugliotta, special to The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, July 30, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Stratolaunch.)
With skies cleared, is it time for a new rocket?
Start with the largest aircraft ever built, with a wingspan longer than a football field and a split fuselage fitted with six Boeing 747 jet engines — enough thrust to get 1.3 million pounds off the ground, about 425,000 pounds more than a fully loaded 747. Sling a 120-foot, three-stage rocket below the aircraft, and when the plane reaches 30,000 feet, fire the rocket into space. Then the plane flies back to Earth.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen calls his newest venture Stratolaunch, a system designed to lift 13,500-pound payloads — satellites, science experiments, cargo and, eventually, humans — into low-Earth orbit, where the space shuttle used to fly and where the International Space Station still dwells. Construction of the aircraft is underway in California, with test flights planned for the end of 2016.
Paul Ghaffari, chief investment officer for Vulcan Capital, an arm of Allen’s Seattle-based firm, said Stratolaunch is a medium-size system that has no real competitors now but even in the future should have “unique advantages” over ground-based rivals, including the ability to launch in inclement weather, to fly without worrying about the availability of launchpads and to operate from different locations. Ghaffari said Stratolaunch hopes ultimately to host six to 10 missions per year.