Stratolaunch's twin-fuselage plane, using systems cannibalized from two 747s and powered by six jumbo-jet engines, is intended to fly to an altitude of about 30,000 feet before launching into orbit a rocket slung underneath its wing.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen on Tuesday launched a speculative space-travel business that calls for building “the largest aircraft ever constructed.”
The twin-fuselage, composite-plastic plane, using systems cannibalized from two 747s and powered by six jumbo-jet engines, is intended to fly to an altitude of about 30,000 feet before launching into orbit a rocket slung underneath its wing.
At a time when the federal government has drastically curtailed its space ambitions and cut funding for exploration, Allen offered a grandiose vision of private industry stepping in to take over.
“Today we stand at the dawn of a radical change in the space-launch industry,” Allen said at a news conference in Seattle. “We have many challenges ahead of us, but by the end of the decade Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit. It will keep America at the forefront of space exploration.”
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The big carrier jet should have its first test flight by 2015, with a test launch of a rocket from the airplane a year later.
Allen said the spacecraft could begin carrying commercial payloads by the end of the decade, with passenger flights at a later, unspecified date.
He said he’d dreamed of being an astronaut as a boy, and “my fascination with space never ended.”
Widest wing ever
The giant carrier aircraft designed to transport the rocket will weigh more than 1.2 million pounds fully loaded and will have a wingspan of 385 feet.
That’s 65 feet wider than the biggest airplane wings ever built, those on the Spruce Goose, the enormous, eight-engine wooden flying boat built by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in the 1940s.
Allen must hope his plane has a better fate than Hughes’ giant cargo plane, built on a government development contract that ended after one test flight. In 1947, the Spruce Goose rose only 70 feet above the waters off Long Beach, Calif., and flew for only a mile or so with Hughes at the controls.
Radical aircraft designer Burt Rutan, a member of Stratolaunch’s board, said the design work on Allen’s big jet already is well advanced.
“This is not a sketch,” Rutan said. “It exists in hundreds of detailed drawings. It’s relatively close to building.”
Stratolaunch will be based in Huntsville, Ala., the center of much of the past U.S. space-rocket development.
Chief Executive Gary Wentz — a former chief engineer at NASA — said Stratolaunch will acquire two used Boeing 747 jumbo jets to be used for parts, including the engines, the landing gear, the avionics and some of the hydraulics.
Wentz said his team already is inspecting the two jets it wants to buy. The parts will be attached to an all-new composite structure of two parallel fuselages yoked together by a massive overhead wing, with a large rocket suspended between them.
Not counting on Boeing
Rutan said Stratolaunch doesn’t expect to receive Boeing’s blessing or cooperation in its repurposing of all the 747 gear.
Only one of the twin fuselages on the aircraft has a cockpit, located in a hump above the nose, much like that in Boeing’s jet. Rutan said the aircraft needs a large cockpit to house all the instrumentation for monitoring the systems that will be transplanted from the cannibalized 747s.
The plane will require a 12,000-foot runway to take off or land, so it will operate from a large airport or a spaceport, such as Kennedy Space Center, the Stratolaunch team said. The aircraft will be able to fly up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point.
The carrier plane will be built by Scaled Composites in a Stratolaunch hangar now under construction at the Mojave, Calif., Air and Space Port.
Scaled Composites, founded by Rutan and now a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, built Allen’s previous space project — SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded vehicle to take humans into space, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.
SpaceShipOne was a suborbital spacecraft: It accelerated to Mach 3.5 and pitched its pilot beyond the atmosphere for about four minutes of weightlessness before falling back.
The ambition of Stratolaunch is far grander because the rocket launched from the carrier jet must achieve orbit. That requires achieving a speed of Mach 25.
“There’s no comparison,” Rutan said.
The multistage booster rocket to be carried aloft by the plane will be manufactured by Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX and led by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk.
The systems to connect the rocket and the aircraft will be manufactured in Huntsville by aerospace engineering firm Dynetics in a new, 226,500-square-foot prototyping facility.
Funding, though, is all Allen. Scaled Composites, SpaceX and Dynetics are all hired by him as subcontractors, he said.
Allen declined to disclose how much money he intends to invest. However, some clues were provided at the news conference when Rutan said the $10 million X Prize had returned 40 percent of SpaceShipOne project’s investment.
That would peg the cost of SpaceShipOne at about $25 million. Allen then said his Stratolaunch project is “an order of magnitude bigger,” meaning 10 times larger.
The implication is that Allen may be prepared to throw $250 million at the Stratolaunch project.
As of September, Forbes magazine estimated Allen’s net worth at $13.2 billion.
An old joke in aviation is that the way to become a millionaire running an airline is to start out as a billionaire. A space business could be an even faster way to lose money, but Allen insisted the project can make economic sense.
“We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think there were a lot of customers out there, both for cargo and for manned missions later,” he said.
Allen noted that Russia charges $63 million per seat to spaceflight passengers such as his friend, fellow Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi, who has taken the tourist trail into space twice.
If Stratolaunch’s system can deliver manned space flights, “we could be very competitive,” Allen said.
Unlike Howard Hughes, Allen isn’t going to operate his craft. He’s not in a rush to be a passenger, either.
“I’m actually a fairly conservative guy,” he said. “Personally, I think I’m going to want to wait for a large number of those flights to happen.”
Private space efforts
Rutan, who is now retired and lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, is on the Stratolaunch board and said he occasionally will review plans and consult.
Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, also a Stratolaunch board member, said the privately funded effort offers an efficient alternative to a government agency. Its business plan has identified a “thriving satellite market” for smaller payloads up to the rocket’s maximum of 13,500 pounds, he said.
More than 100 people are working on the project, and the hiring of technicians and engineers will increase as it moves deeper into the engineering and manufacturing phases, Rutan said. The first jobs will be in Alabama, California and Florida.
In an interview in June, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Jim Albaugh, a former rocket scientist who led Boeing’s space division at one time, strongly criticized the government’s plan to cut NASA funding and questioned whether private space ventures can either fill that hole or be financially successful.
“They are trying to commercialize space. … Getting the reliability requires a lot of redundancy, which requires a lot of cost,” Albaugh said then. “I think it’s going to be a money pit for a lot of them.”
Boeing, as a key government contractor for space systems, including launch rockets, is likely to see its space revenue shrink if funding continues to shift toward smaller private firms.
Stratolaunch CEO Wentz, who left NASA to join Allen’s venture a year ago, is more optimistic than Albaugh about private space efforts.
“I see this as an opportunity to sustain funding and move forward with a program and bring it to fruition,” Wentz said.
Enthusiastic billionaires now are crowding the private space business.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic already is selling tourist tickets for future trips to space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is building big ground-launched rockets. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has a private space venture — Blue Origin — that also launches its rockets from the ground.
Allen was asked if he felt he’s competing with Bezos, whose thriving tech company’s headquarters campus is housed in South Lake Union buildings owned by Vulcan.
“I don’t feel a rivalry,” Allen said. “The more the merrier.”
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963