Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen, who financed the first privately funded passenger spaceship, is reuniting with prototype SpaceShipOne builder Burt Rutan on a new venture to carry cargo and people into orbit.
The company, called Stratolaunch Systems, plans to build a massive airplane that can tote a rocket high into the atmosphere before it is dropped for an independent ride into space.
The new six-engine craft will be the largest ever flown, weighing more than 1.2 million pounds with a wingspan of 385 feet -- longer than a football field. In contrast, the wingspan for WhiteKnightTwo, the carrier aircraft for Virgin Galactic's commercial spaceship, is 141 feet.
The system is similar, though much larger, to SpaceShipTwo, a commercial successor to SpaceShipOne, which clinched the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for the first non-government human spaceflights.
SpaceShipTwo, which is currently undergoing testing in Mojave, Calif., is owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which so far has reservations from nearly 500 private individuals and science researchers for short rides beyond the atmosphere.
"It's a great honor for me to be back working with Burt Rutan," Allen told reporters at a press conference to unveil the new project.
Rutan founded and served as the chief executive of Scaled Composites, which built both SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. He retired in April.
Scaled, based in Mojave, Calif., is the prime contractor for Stratolaunch System's carrier aircraft. Space Exploration Technologies, which is pursing a more traditional capsule design to carry cargo and people into orbit, is signed on to provide a modified version of its Falcon rocket to serve as Stratolaunch's booster.
"It's not a competition within SpaceX," said company vice president Adam Harris. "It's actually a complementary capability."
Stratolaunch expects to be able to launch medium-weight satellites and eventually crews of about six people at a time, said former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who is working with the new venture.
The firm's aircraft will be manufactured and tested at Scaled's facility in Mojave. A launch site has not yet been selected.
"The beauty of large turbofan airplane is it really meets the definition of re-usability," Rutan said. "A typical 747 (aircraft) throughout its entire life spends somewhere between 12 or 15 hours a day airborne."
"There's an amazing amount of flexibility to fly multiple payloads in a short period of time, from different locations and to different orbits. If there was sufficient demand, we could see our way to building more carrier aircraft. That's a long way down the road," Allen said.