Billionaire Paul Allen launches new commercial space company

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Seattle billionaire and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen is launching a new commercial space travel company that would carry tourists into orbit with the help of Southern California aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan.

The Huntsville, Ala., company, named Stratolaunch Systems, promises to bring “airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions.” The company plans for a first flight within five years.


In a news conference Tuesday, Rutan and former NASA chief Mike Griffin said they joined Stratolaunch as board members. Along with Allen, the trio introduced the company’s novel idea of launching payloads into orbit aboard what would be the largest aircraft ever flown.

The plane is set to have a wingspan of 385 feet and be powered by six engines found on Boeing Co.’s 747 jumbo jets. The wingspan is 67 feet longer than Howard Hughes’ H-4 Hercules, dubbed Spruce Goose, and bigger than the length of a football field.

The plane will be developed by Mojave-based Scaled Composites, an aerospace design shop founded by Rutan in 1982.

The aircraft will need to be large enough to carry a manned rocket ship under its wing to 30,000 feet. Once there, the rocket ship will separate and blast into orbit. A video of how it works can be seen below or here.

The rocket ship will be powered by a multi-stage booster, manufactured by Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX.

Stratolaunch brings together the heavyweights and big names of the commercial space industry.


This new space race started in 2004 when Allen and Rutan teamed up to build the world’s first commercial spaceship, aptly named SpaceShipOne, for a demonstration flight.

“I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne -- to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system,” Allen said in a statement. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”


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-- W.J. Hennigan