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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?

By Donna Blankinship and Seth BorensteinAssociated Press / December 14, 2011

This Stratolaunch plane would launch cargo and astronauts into space. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan are building the Stratolaunch plane, in the latest of several ventures fueled by technology tycoons clamoring to write America's next chapter in spaceflight.

Strautolaunch Systems/Artist rendering/AP

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SEATTLE

The tycoons of cyberspace are looking to bankroll America's resurgence in outer space, reviving "Star Trek" dreams that first interested them in science.

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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.

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