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Paul Allen to build behemoth plane for space launches

Plans for the world’s largest airplane powered by six jumbo jet engines were unveiled by Seattle billionaire and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen as part of a new commercial space venture that plans to send satellites, cargo and tourists into Earth orbit aboard a rocket ship.

The new company, Stratolaunch Systems Inc., said Tuesday that it expects to bring “airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions.”

Allen, 58, wants to see the first flight within five years and declined to say how much the venture will cost, but he made clear that the program needs to move quickly now that NASA’s fleet of space shuttles has been retired.

“When I was growing up, America’s space program was the symbol of aspiration,” he said at a news conference in Seattle. Stratolaunch “will keep America at the forefront of space exploration and give tomorrow’s children something to search for in the night sky and dream about.”

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At the news conference, Allen was accompanied by Southern California aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and former NASA chief Mike Griffin, who joined the Huntsville, Ala., company as board members. The trio revealed a plan to launch payloads into orbit aboard a rocket ship that is carried by the behemoth plane.

Instead of trying to launch a manned rocket directly into space, Stratolaunch’s plan calls for the carrier plane to lift a rocket ship to a high altitude. Once there, the rocket ship would separate from the carrier aircraft, then engage its rocket engines for its climb into space.

The carrier aircraft looks like Siamese twin commercial jets, with two fuselages that are fused together by one wing. The wingspan will stretch 385 feet — more than 65 feet longer than Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose.

It will be built by aerospace design shop Scaled Composites, which was founded by Rutan in 1982. The aircraft will be powered by six engines found on Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jets.

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The unusual design stems from one that Rutan fine-tuned when his Mojave company and Allen won a $10-million competition by twice sending a test pilot to the edge of space in 2004.

The contest is largely seen as the starting gun to a commercial space race that has drawn the likes of British billionaire Richard Branson, PayPal Inc. co-founder Elon Musk and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

The 1.2 million-pound aircraft will need to be large and powerful enough to carry a rocket ship that, depending on the mission, will carry satellites, cargo or tourists under its wing to 30,000 feet. The rocket ship will be powered by a multistage booster, manufactured by Hawthorne company Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX.

Although the scheme may seem far-fetched, the method has been demonstrated by the U.S. military with experimental planes, notably the X-15. Also, rocket company Orbital Sciences Corp. in Vienna, Va., uses the approach to launch satellites aboard its unmanned Pegasus rocket.

Marco A. Caceres, an analyst for aerospace research firm Teal Group of Fairfax, Va., said the design would make sense from a business perspective for a variety of reasons.

It’s a flexible system that can be moved from different locations around the world, he said, and it doesn’t depend on elaborate launch pads at established space centers such as those in Cape Canaveral, Fla. It saves money because tons of rocket fuel aren’t expended to get a heavy rocket off the ground.

“Also, from a space tourism perspective, it’s a little easier to market because it resembles a system people are comfortable with,” Caceres said. “I’m thinking that stepping into a space plane is a bit more reasonable to folks than strapping into a capsule atop a giant rocket.”

For Allen, Stratolaunch will pick up where he and Rutan left off in 2004.

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“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.... Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”

william.hennigan@latimes.com


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