Humongous plane to serve as flying launch pad for space tourists

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced plans to construct a giant aircraft to launch rockets into orbit, eventually for paying passengers.

Stratolaunch Systems/PRNewsFoto
Microsoft Corp co-founder Paul Allen hopes that his new company, called Stratolaunch Systems, will bring safer, less expensive space missions with its airborne launch program.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced today (Dec. 13) that he is teaming up again with aerospace design mogul Burt Rutan to develop what the pair is calling a revolutionary approach to private space travel for people, cargo or satellites.

The billionaire investor and philanthropist unveiled the new company Stratolaunch Systems, which aims to create airport-like operations for space travel. The company, headquartered in Huntsville, Ala., will use a giant twin-boom aircraft to launch a rocket and space capsule from the air to carry commercial and government payloads, and eventually paying passengers, into orbit. The first flight is expected to occur within five years.

Once the launch system is proven to be safe and reliable, manned flights will follow, Stratolaunch Systems officials said.

"I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne — to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system," Allen said in a statement. "We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel."

This isn't Allen's first foray into the realm of private space travel.

Allen first partnered with Rutan, founder of the aerospace design company Scaled Composites, to bankroll the construction of a manned vehicle capable of reaching the edge of space. In 2004, the SpaceShipOne suborbital rocket plane became the first privately built manned craft to reach suborbital space.

In October of that year, SpaceShipOne was piloted to suborbital altitudes of more than 360,000 feet (112 kilometers) on back-to-back flights that helped Rutan and Allen snag the $10 million Ansari X prize. 

Stratolaunch systems will use an aircraft developed by Scaled Composites that is expected to be the largest aircraft ever flown, Stratolaunch officials said.

"Paul and I pioneered private space travel with SpaceShipOne, which led to Virgin Galactic’s commercial suborbitalSpaceShipTwo Program," Rutan, who will join Stratolaunch Systems as a board member, said in a statement. "Now, we will have the opportunity to extend that capability to orbit and beyond. Paul has proven himself a visionary with the will, commitment and courage to continue pushing the boundaries of space technology. We are well aware of the challenges ahead, but we have put together an incredible research team that will draw inspiration from Paul’s vision." [Images: Paul Allen's Giant Stratolaunch Air Launch Pad ]

A multi-stage rocket booster will be manufactured by Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).

SpaceX is one of several private companies designing spaceships to carry cargo, and eventually astronauts, to the International Space Station and other destinations in low-Earth orbit. The company's robotic Dragon capsule is slated to launch on a test flight to the space station in early February.

Today's announcement is the latest in a series of science and aerospace projects that Allen has funded over the years.

In addition to financing the development of SpaceShipOne, Allen also funded the construction of a collection of 42 radio dishes for the nonprofit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. The Allen Telescope Array, named for the billionaire, is used to listen for alien signals in the SETI Institute's ongoing search for life beyond Earth.

Stratolaunch Systems will be led by Gary Wentz, a former chief engineer at NASA. Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin is also one of the company's board members. Griffin joined Allen and Rutan in a press conference today from Seattle to announce the new project.

"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 a statement. "Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations."

The plane will be built in a Stratolaunch hangar which will soon begin construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port. It will be near where Scaled Composites built SpaceShipOne, company officials said.

You can follow staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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