Paul Allen vs. Elon Musk: a different approach to satellite launches

A private company backed by Paul Allen, Microsoft's co-founder, offered a glimpse last week of a massive plane it plans to use to launch satellites into low Earth orbit.

Vulcan Industries/Reuters
Vulcan Aerospace's Stratolaunch rockets' left fuselage assembly is shown under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California in June. The private space company backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is nearing completion on a massive plane it hopes to use to launch satellites into low Earth orbit to provide internet service and other uses.

Could a massive plane help kickstart a communications network of satellites in space? That's the hope for Vulcan Aerospace, a private space launch company backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

With six engines and a 385-foot wingspan, the company's Stratolaunch plane would be the world's largest, bigger than Howard Hughes' famous "Spruce Goose," which had a solo flight in 1947 when it flew for a mile at an altitude of 70 feet.

But Mr. Allen's focus on using the plane not for space travel but to launch satellites into low Earth orbit is a different take on space than the one pursued by private space companies such as Elon Musk's Space X, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

Allen's Stratolaunch aims to carry a rocket bearing a satellite about 35,000 feet into the air, then allow the rocket to drop, fire its engines and air-launch into orbit, The Washington Post reports.

The company revealed the plane, which it says is 76 percent complete, in a tour for reporters in California last week.

The effort comes amid a slew of tech companies, including Facebook and Google, unveiling efforts to beam internet access, Earth imagery, and climate data via satellites from space. Allen's company is casting the effort in larger terms, likening it to the origins of the personal computer.

"Thirty years ago, the PC revolution put computing power into the hands of millions and unlocked incalculable human potential. Twenty years ago, the advent of the Web and the subsequent proliferation of smartphones combined to enable billions of people to surmount the traditional limitations of geography and commerce. Today, expanding access to [low Earth orbit] holds similar revolutionary potential," Allen said in a statement.

The concept shares similarities with ideas running through other space flight efforts. Its twin fuselage plane, for example, is built by Northrop Grumman's Scaled Composites, which is also building planes to launch passenger-carrying rockets for Mr. Branson's Virgin Atlantic, Reuters reports.

The company is also hoping to make the trips above Earth's surface a routine occurrence, much like regular trains, a goal Mr. Musk has alluded to in discussing successful vertical launches of Space X rockets.

So far, it's still unclear who would make the rockets Stratolaunch would carry into space. Branson's Virgin Galactic is also planning a similar effort to launch rockets carrying small satellites into the air via a Boeing 747, The Post reports.

"Dedicated, responsive small satellite launch is a crowded field right now, in terms of development; nearly twenty launchers have been proposed. Some, all or none may succeed," Carissa Christensen, managing partner of the Tauri Group consulting firm, told The Post.

But the plane's size may give it a large-scale advantage in building a more robust satellite network, because it could carry a larger payload into space.

"You could fit a football field up here," Chuck Beames, the president of Allen's Vulcan Aerospace, told reporters touring the aircraft in California, noting that the plane could also help maneuver the satellites into a precise orbit quickly, Reuters reports.

Allen, the billionaire owner of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks and the NBA's Portland Trailblazers, is a longtime space enthusiast who helped bankroll the first privately funded space flight in 2004 with the air-powered SpaceShipOne.

But since then he has mostly kept a low profile. With the tour for reporters and Mr. Beames' assertion that Allen has set a goal to launch orbital rockets by the end of the decade, however, that seems set to change.

The idea of building a network of satellites has a rocky history, with fellow Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates previously backing one such effort that aimed to provide high-speed internet service in the late 1990s.

More recently, SpaceX's Musk unveiled a similar plan, asking for approval from the Federal Communications Commission and receiving $1 billion in funding from Google and Fidelity, Tech Insider reports.

But last October, SpaceX chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell cast the company's plan to launch 4,000 satellites in a different light, calling it "very speculative."

Vulture Aerospace, by contrast, is exploring partnerships with various rocket companies but will focus exclusively on launching its communications network, not on human exploration, Beames told Reuters.

"Just like computing devices are rapidly changing what they can do and our way of life, access to space is changing the way we live," he said.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.