Paul Allen Wants Path to Space to Start on World’s Biggest Plane

Stratolaunch Hanger
Stratolaunch is also studying manned vehicles that would eventually foster space tourism. Source: Vulcan Aerospace via Bloomberg

Billionaire Paul Allen sees cheap and convenient spaceflight unlocking a wave of innovation like the personal computing breakthroughs he fostered as a co-founder of Microsoft Corp.

The game-changer, he says, is a twin-hulled jet taking shape in California’s Mojave Desert with a 385-foot (117-meter) wingspan that will be the world’s largest aircraft, dwarfing a football field or soccer pitch.

Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems is designing the hulking carrier to bypass congested launchpads, climb to 30,000 feet and then drop a rocket whose engines would propel it to low Earth orbit. The price tag, less than $20 million, would be a fraction of what United Launch Alliance and Elon Musk’s Space Technology Exploration Corp. charge for larger rockets.

“If you’re looking at space launches from airports, you’re able to usher in more of a democratization of space,” Chuck Beames, executive director of Stratolaunch Systems and president of Vulcan Aerospace, said in an April 8 phone interview. Allen’s ultimate goal: “putting space in the hands of every man.”

Allen, along with billionaire Richard Branson, Boeing Co. and rocket upstarts are all trying to develop quicker, cheaper access to space for satellite startups and universities. Developers have to wait years to get to space, and when they do it’s as a secondary payload on somebody else’s rocket.

Cheap, Convenient

“Paul is trying to make it even less expensive and more convenient,” Beames said in advance of his address Monday before the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Beames joined the Vulcan Inc. unit last year from the Defense Department, where he oversaw a $90-billion space portfolio.

Vulcan Aerospace is a new unit of Allen’s Vulcan Inc. that will oversee the development of Stratolaunch and usher in what Beames describes in a blogpost as “NextSpace.”

Before beginning commercial service later this decade, Beames and Stratolaunch face a host of technical hurdles. They range from ensuring the carrier is sturdy enough for air launches to gaining U.S. government approval to heave rockets into orbit away from a ground-based launch pad’s radar tracking and flight termination technologies.

Standard Workout

Scaled Composites, a unit of Northrop Grumman Corp., is building the craft by blending hulls made from light-weight composites with landing gear and other parts scavenged from two Boeing 747 jumbo jets.

The jet is about 40 percent built and about 80 percent of the parts have been fabricated, Beames said. The plan is to roll it out late this year or in early 2016, putting it through a standard workout of its systems leading to flight testing in the summer or fall of 2016.

Still to be determined are the manned and cargo craft Stratolaunch will eventually send to orbit or even the International Space Station, Beames said.

Musk’s SpaceX, an initial partner, is no longer associated with the venture. The rocket produced by Orbital ATK Inc., which replaced SpaceX, will probably be smaller than the medium-lift vehicle with a 6,000 kilogram (13,000-pound) payload that Stratolaunch had initially planned, Beames said.

“I think it’s more likely we’ll be targeting a smaller payload class,” Beames said. “We’re not announcing anything on that yet.”

Space Tourism

Stratolaunch is also studying manned vehicles that would eventually foster space tourism. It hired Sierra Nevada Corp. to do an initial design work-up of a smaller-scaled version of its shuttle-like Dream Chaser transport “to make sure we were on the right trajectory,” Beames said.

Allen’s goal for human space flight mirrors his amibitions for satellite launches: convenient, inexpensive flight so that space is no longer the exclusive provenance of governments and the ultra-wealthy, he said.

Stratolaunch isn’t worried about being undercut by smaller cheaper rockets, such as Rocket Lab USA’s $4.9 million Electron rocket flights, Beames said. In fact, Allen is an investor in some of the new rocketeers he said, while declining to provide specifics.

“This is about a movement,” Beames said. “The more people in it, the more room for innovation and really achieving Paul’s vision for space as a domain for an entrepreneurial class.”

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