From Microsoft to commercial space flight: Paul Allen's new venture
12/15/2011 2:00 AM EST
Forget about rockets, if Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has his way, the satellites of tomorrow may well enter orbit courtesy of a mid-air launch from a dual-fuselage airplane that dwarfs any that’s come before. Based on the SpaceShipOne concept, the carrier plane will bring a multistage booster rocket to 30,000 feet, then release it, after which the engines will ignite to propel 10,000-lb-class payloads to low earth orbit. Meanwhile, the carrier plane will head back down to earth until the next mission.
The project is under development by Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, which puts him back together with Burt Rutan, his teammate from SpaceShipOne, the launch vehicle that took a civilian into space. But while SpaceShipOne had an 82-ft wingspan, that of the Stratolaunch carrier plane will be a whopping 385 feet. Compare that to the wingspan of the Airbus A380 at just over 261 ft…or the Spruce Goose at 319 ft.
I find myself torn, here. The geek side of me is fascinated by the ambition and scope of the project. In some ways, it seems like a very smart solution. But then I read about them leveraging used 747 engines and parts. I look at the crossmember dangling between the two fuselages that's going to have to support a 490,000-lb booster rocket with payload, and composite or no composite, I can’t help but be a bit skeptical.
Still, they seem to be assembling a good team. In addition to adding Rutan to the Stratolaunch board, they’ve recruited NASA veteran Gary Wentz as CEO. The task of building the carrier aircraft falls to Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipOne and is developing SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic. As for the 120-ft-long booster rocket, that will be provided by SpaceX, based on its Falcon 9 platform. SpaceX will also provide mission design and integration services. Dynetics will produce the mating and integration system (MIS) that connects the booster rocket with the carrier aircraft. The system can hold a booster load of nearly half a million pounds.
Fully loaded, the carrier plane will take off at 1.2 million pounds and require a 12,000-ft runway to do it. The company touts the launch platform’s portability—it has a range of 1300 miles—as making it independent of local weather conditions. That said, 12,000-ft runways aren’t exactly thick on the ground. Perhaps more of a concern, are they likely to be able to accommodate the carrier plane’s wingspan, not just in the primary runway but in taxiways? It seems more likely that the project would develop a few dedicated runway/hangar facilities of its own.
It’s an interesting concept, but I keep looking at the numbers and questioning the scale. Allen has deep pockets, but it seems likely that this project would rapidly devour the $200 million some sources estimate he’s indicated he’s prepared to spend. The ambitious schedule calls for test flights to begin in 2016. That seems optimistic, as well. That said, I’ve been to Cape Canaveral, I’ve stood by the Mercury rocket and then a Saturn V. I’ve seen how technology can scale up. Will it work in this case? Will Stratolaunch have the resources to pull it off? What do you think?