Paul Allen is returning to the space business with a venture to build an airplane that will launch satellites, cargo and people into orbit around the Earth.
The billionaire co-founder of Microsoft Corp. said his new company, Stratolaunch Systems Inc., will bring “airport-like operations” to space flights, including eventual human missions. The first flight is planned within five years, Allen told reporters yesterday in Seattle.
“We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry,” Allen said. Stratolaunch’s creation is “an ambitious effort to continue America’s drive for space,” coming months after NASA ended its shuttle program, he said.
Allen, 58, is teaming up again for the venture with Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer with whom he worked to develop SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded, manned rocket to fly into space. Their new plan calls for a jet that looks like two airliners with a wing joining their fuselages and a rocket hanging between them carrying a capsule for people or cargo or a structure that would hold a satellite.
The plane will be built by Scaled Composites LLC, the Mojave, California, company founded by Rutan; the multistage booster rocket based on the Falcon 9 will come from by Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., also known as SpaceX; and the integration system will be provided by Dynetics Inc., based in Huntsville, Alabama.
The three companies are subcontractors to Huntsville-based Stratolaunch, and Allen is funding the whole project, said Paul Ghaffari, chief investment officer of Allen’s Seattle-based Vulcan Capital. The cost will exceed the $25 million Allen put into SpaceShipOne in 2004, Ghaffari said, declining to be more specific.
The company aims to make a profit initially by winning business to launch medium-sized satellites. Those are now launched from the ground, which requires more fuel and infrastructure, making them more expensive. They also can be held back by poor weather.
Launching a rocket from a plane in flight promises to cut costs and improve safety compared with the current ground-based technology, said Mike Griffin, a Stratolaunch board member who was NASA’s administrator from 2005 to 2009. The new technique also will reduce turnaround time between flights, he said.
Stratolaunch’s carrier aircraft will take off from a 12,000-foot (3,700-meter) runway, longer than normal because of the plane’s size. The aircraft will have a wingspan of more than 380 feet and use six engines culled from two Boeing Co. 747 jumbo jets. Boeing’s new 747-8 has a wingspan of just over 224 feet, the longest the planemaker has ever built.
Stratolaunch’s plane will climb to 30,000 to 35,000 feet and then release the capsule or satellite structure, which will drop for a few seconds before firing the booster to launch into orbit.
Once it leaves the Earth’s atmosphere, the craft will separate from the rocket and orbit on its own. A satellite would stay up until it burns out, and a capsule carrying cargo or people would re-enter just like NASA’s shuttles used to, said Gary Wentz, Stratolaunch president and chief executive officer.
The carrier’s payload will be 13,500 pounds (6,100 kilograms), Wentz said.
Stratolaunch is constructing a hangar for the carrier in the Mojave Desert, has built pieces of the full-scale structure and has detailed designs for the rest, Rutan said. The structure will be built of composites, and the carrier aircraft will use engines, landing gear, avionics and other components from two used 747s Stratolaunch plans to buy from an airline, Wentz said.
In 2004, Allen and Scaled Composites won the $10 million Ansari X Prize after three successful suborbital flights of SpaceShipOne.
Allen said he decided to fund Stratolaunch to step into the void left when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration changed its focus earlier this year. NASA now is developing rocket systems that may eventually take humans into deep space, while relying on private companies to build spacecraft to ferry astronauts -- and potentially tourists -- to the space station.
“Nearsightedness dashed my dreams of becoming a pilot,” Allen said. “But I never stopped dreaming of space.”
Still, he said he’ll “wait for a large number of those cargo flights to happen” before heading for space himself.