by Matthew Field, The Telegraph, August 21, 2018
Stratolaunch Systems, the company owned by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has revealed new details about its plan to build and fly the world's largest plane which he claims will one day be used to send humans into space.
Named the Stratolaunch, the aircraft has a wingspan of 384ft, making it longer than a football field and more than twice the width of a Boeing 747 jetliner. It is equipped with 28 wheels, two fuselages and six Pratt & Whitney engines.
The aircraft has been in development since 2011 and earlier this year completed its first high-speed taxi test. It is due to complete its first test flight by the end of this year, according to Allen.
The ultimate goal is for the aircraft to act as a flying launchpad for satellite-carrying rockets and manned spaceplanes - a system that could dramatically drive down the cost of space travel.
The company has revealed it is working on a family of rocket-powered launch vehicles and is in the early stages of creating a reusable spacecraft.
It has shared designs for two medium launch vehicles (MLVs) that could carry 7,500lbs into orbit by 2022. A "heavy" variant is also in "early development" that would transport over 13,200lbs.
There is currently no date for when the reusable spaceplane will be complete.
"We are excited to share for the first time some details about the development of our own, proprietary Stratolaunch launch vehicles, with which we will offer a flexible launch capability unlike any other," Stratolaunch chief executive Jean Floyd said in a statement.
"Whatever the payload, whatever the orbit, getting your satellite into space will soon be as easy as booking an airline flight."
There is competition for space on the major rocket launch sites around the world, and by firing a rocket from a plane pilots could bypass a slow or delayed ground launch. In this way, Stratolaunch hopes to make space travel "routine".
Allen co-founded Microsoft in 1975 with Bill Gates. He later went to work on SpaceShipOne, which would become the flagship aircraft for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
Allen went on to found Stratolaunch in 2011 along with aircraft engineer Burt Rutan, who later left the project.
Since its inception, other projects such as SpaceX have successfully tested and launched their rocket designs. While Musk's rocket company SpaceX has sought to make space flights cheaper using reusable rockets, Stratolaunch believes rockets can be launched from a larger, mother ship aircraft high in the atmosphere.
“Whatever the payload, whatever the orbit, getting your satellite into space will soon be as easy as booking an airline flight,” said Jean Floyd, chief executive.
When it flies, the massive Stratolaunch plane will have a wing span larger than that of the Spruce Goose, the legendary seaplane designed by Howard Hughes in 1947, a plane that only ever made one flight.