Stratolaunch plane could make space tourism affordable
Stratolaunch plane, an enormous aircraft, will be a flying launchpad for space flights. Could this Stratolaunch plane turn extraterrestrial tourism into an everyday affair?
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Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen made the latest step Tuesday, unveiling plans for a new commercial spaceship that, instead of blasting off a launch pad, would be carried high into the atmosphere by the widest plane ever built before it fires its rockets.
He joins Silicon Valley powerhouses Elon Musk of PayPal and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com Inc. in a new private space race that attempts to fill the gap left when the U.S. government ended the space shuttle program.
Musk, whose Space Exploration Technologies will send its Dragon capsule to dock with the International Space Station in February, will provide the capsule and booster rocket for Allen's venture, which is called Stratolaunch. Bezos is building a rival private spaceship.
Allen is working with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, who collaborated with the tycoon in 2004 to win a $10 million prize for the first flight of a private spaceship that went into space but not orbit.
Allen says his enormous airplane and spaceship system will go to "the next big step: a private orbital space platform business."
The new system is "a radical change" in how people can get to space, and it will "keep America at the forefront of space exploration," Allen said.
Their plane will have a 380-foot (116-meter) wingspan — longer than a football field and wider than the biggest aircraft ever, Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose.
It will launch a space capsule equipped with a booster rocket, which will send the spacecraft into orbit. This method saves money by not using rocket fuel to get off the ground. The spaceship may hold as many as six people.
"When I was growing up, America's space program was the symbol of aspiration," said Allen, who mentioned his love of science fiction and early human spaceflights. "For me, the fascination with space never ended. I never stopped dreaming what might be possible."
For those attracted to difficult technical challenges, space is the ultimate challenge, Allen said.
"It's also the ultimate adventure. We all grew up devouring science fiction and watching Mercury and Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle. And now we are able to be involved in moving things to the next level," he said, adding that he admires people like Simonyi who have gone into space to experience it.
Allen is not alone in having such dreams, and the money to gamble on making them come true.
"Space was the inspiration that got people into high-tech ... at least individuals in their 40s and 50s," said Peter Diamandis, who created the space prize Allen won earlier and is a high-tech mogul-turned space business leader himself. "Now they're coming full circle."
Diamandis helped found a company that sends tourists to space for at least $25 million a ride, and seven of the eight rides involved high-tech executives living out their space dreams. One is a former Microsoft colleague of Allen's, Charles Simonyi, who paid at least $20 million apiece for two rides into orbit and attended Allen's Tuesday news conference, saying he wouldn't mind a third flight.