Alt-aviation wizard Burt Rutan set out to design a plane that could haul rockets to the edge of space. Then he persuaded Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen to build a dual-fuselage beast with a wingspan longer than a football field.
In December 2011, Paul Allen, the reclusive billionaire and cofounder of Microsoft, stood in front of a group of reporters in Seattle and told them about his wild new plan. Wearing the tech-brahmin uniform of a navy blazer, dress shirt, and conspicuously absent tie, Allen made some introductory remarks and then rolled a video simulation of a strange beast of an aircraft leaving an oversize hangar. This was Stratolaunch. It would be the largest airplane, by wingspan, ever created. The twin-fuselage, catamaran-style aircraft would be a flying launchpad, its purpose to heave a half-million-pound rocket ship to cruising altitude and then drop it, whereupon the rocket would ignite its engines for a fiery ascent into space. Allen’s hope was that this extraordinary bird would be able to do quick laps between the ground and the stratosphere, making access to space no more exotic than a New York–to–Boston commuter flight.
Almost seven years later, the plane finally exists, and it is one big mama. I traveled to the Mojave Air and Space Port, a desert city of giant industrial structures in Southern California, where Stratolaunch was built. The plane’s facility on the eastern edge of the port stands out among the other structures. After walking through some drab offices, I was escorted into the approximately 100,000-square-foot hangar. The gleaming white Stratolaunch didn’t just fill the expanse; it reached into every corner of it. There was no way to take in the monster with a single glance. Starting near its tail, I walked through and around it, craning my neck and stretching on my tiptoes to gather mental snapshots of the two fuselages and the white drag strip of a wing and stitch them together into one panoramic picture.
Everything about Stratolaunch is supersized. It has six screaming Pratt & Whitney turbofan jet engines, salvaged from three 747s. Its maximum takeoff weight is 1.3 million pounds. It’s got more than 80 miles of wiring. Most astounding is its 385-foot wingspan, the spec that puts Stratolaunch in the history books. That number may not seem remarkable, but on a single airplane wing 385 feet is an eternity. It’s a football field plus the end zones and a little bit more. If the Wright brothers had begun their initial Kitty Hawk flight at the tip of one Stratolaunch wing, they could have completed the journey and done it twice more before they reached the other end.
Though the two fuselages look identical, only the right one has a cockpit, largely preserved from one of the 747s, with a throttle, foot pedal, and even some analog displays that a commercial pilot working in the 1970s might find familiar. One of the seats is covered by a sheepskin-like cushion of the type often found in New York City taxis. Looking out the window, the second fuselage is so far away that it looks like a plane sitting on an adjacent runway.
It’s hard to imagine this mammoth structure rising into the air. But the team—without Rutan, who retired in 2011—has been methodically taking it through a series of tests: bearing its own weight, firing its engines, taxiing down 2-plus miles of runway. Allen promises Stratolaunch will ascend as early as this fall.
Thousands of people will turn their eyes to Mojave when that first flight happens. But after that, what? The original plan was to create a more reliable and flexible way to shoot satellites into space. But while Stratolaunch’s development has dragged on, the private space industry has leaped ahead. Other billionaires, notably Elon Musk, have dazzled the world with fiery launches and wild achievements such as reusable rockets and orbiting sports cars. The industry is becoming increasingly competitive, and numerous companies are scheming to lower the cost and increase the reliability of rocket launches. Musk’s SpaceX was going to supply Allen with the rockets Stratolaunch would carry, but it ditched the project years ago.
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The next steps are more ambitious. In a project codenamed Black Ice, Stratolaunch is designing reusable space planes that will take off from the big airplane and go into orbit. The first one will be programmed to open its bay doors once in orbit and release its payload, perhaps even a fleet of satellites, into space. And then it will return to Earth. The idea is not all that different from the original space shuttle, which was a reusable vehicle that could also steer itself down from orbit to land on a runway. It can “come back and land at Mojave where the plane is waiting, the fuel system is waiting,” Floyd says. “You roll up underneath the plane, you refuel, you put the next payload in, and you go again.” Finally, Stratolaunch aims to build a second version of Black Ice that can carry astronauts. That ship won’t be flying for at least a decade.
But by then, who knows what Stratolaunch’s competitors will be up to? Though Allen reportedly plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his space enterprise, and is its sole investor, billions are being plowed into companies such as Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, both of which are trying to cut costs in the private space industry with reusable booster rockets that take off from the ground, not air launches. The companies have deals with NASA and commercial customers worth billions of dollars. Traditional defense contractors are also developing their own orbital rockets. And a new generation of people are thinking up new approaches to space. Earlier this year came news that a startup called SpinLaunch was developing a system in which a catapult-like contraption could efficiently zip satellites into orbit, aiming to cut prices to less than $500,000 per launch. Investors include Airbus Ventures and Kleiner Perkins.
Stratolaunch is not commenting on whether it has any customers signed up. Floyd suggests the business part of Stratolaunch is a work in progress. “They love this,” he says, “but this has to fly first.” In other words, get the thing in the air, then they’ll talk.
This article was originally published at Wired (www.wired.com) and has been republished under Creative Commons
By Steven Levy, Wired