"By the end of the decade," Paul Allen says, "Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit."
Taking a flight into space without mortgaging the house may seem a long way off, but it just got a step closer to reality with the groundbreaking of the Stratolaunch Systems production facility and hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s company could one day compete with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, driving down the price tag for commercial human spaceflight. The first phase of production has also just begun on the aircraft that will serve as the delivery system for Allen’s spaceship: a 1.2-million-pound behemoth with a wingspan larger than a football field.
Allen has teamed up with Scaled Composites owner Burt Rutan to develop the mothership, an updated version of Rutan’s WhiteKnightOne and WhiteKnightTwo designs. The aircraft will be capable of carrying a SpaceX-designed rocket ship up to 1,300 nautical miles to the launch point, where the rocket would detach and blast into the stratosphere. But this time out Rutan is going really big: The Stratolaunch aircraft would be the largest plane ever built, with a 380-foot wingspan—60 feet longer than Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose”—and six Boeing 747 engines. In February the first of two 747s arrived at Mojave to begin disassembly of its engines, landing gear and hydraulics for use in the new plane.
“By the end of this decade,” says Allen, “Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit,” helping restore America’s leadership role in space. Flight-testing is scheduled to begin in 2015, and the first rocket should be launched in 2016.