Cosmiclog MSNBC – software billionaire Paul Allen and aerospace guru Burt Rutan are teaming up with SpaceX and other top-flight rocketeers to create an air-launched orbital delivery system. They say the venture will require the construction of the largest aircraft ever flown.
The new venture is significant for the revival of the Allen-Rutan partnership, with the addition of California-based SpaceX and Alabama-based Dynetics as suppliers.
Other players include Gary Wentz, a former chief engineer at NASA, who will serve as Stratolaunch’s CEO and president; and former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who is on the board. “We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground-launched rockets,” Griffin said in the news release.
Mothership plus rocket
The Stratolaunch system would super-size the arrangement used for the SpaceShipOne launches: Scaled Composites has been tapped to build a carrier airplane that weighs more than 1.2 million pounds, with a wingspan of more than 380 feet. That tonnage rivals the weight of the Antonov An-225, which is recognized as the world’s heaviest aircraft. Stratolaunch’s dual-fuselage plane would be powered by six 747 engines, and would require a 12,000-foot runway for landing.
The plane would be capable of flying up to 1,300 nautical miles to reach its launch point. SpaceX would provide a modified version of its Falcon 9 rocket for the next phase of Stratolaunch’s route to orbit. The multistage booster would be attached to the plane using a mating and integration system developed by Dynetics, and released during the mothership’s flight at high altitude. After release, the 490,000-pound rocket would light up to launch commercial and government payloads into orbit.
“Human flights will follow, after safety, reliabiliity and operability are demonstrated,” Stratolaunch said.
Stratolaunch’s briefing materials said more than 100 people have already been assigned to the effort in California, Florida and Alabama, where the company is headquartered. Flight tests are projected to begin in 2016.