The Stratolaunch twin-hulled airplane, its wings stretching wider than a football field, took its first flight Saturday morning and spent more than two hours soaring above California’s Mojave Desert.
In taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port, the plane brought closer to reality the dream of launching satellites from the air. The idea is that the aircraft — which has conjoined-twin fuselages and is powered by six Boeing 747 engines — would eventually hoist a rocket carrying a satellite to a higher altitude before releasing it to blast into space.
“For a first flight, it was spot on,” test pilot Evan Thomas told reporters on a conference call not long after the plane landed back in Mojave. “For the most part, the airplane flew as predicted …. Systems on the airplane ran like a watch.”
Thomas said “a few little things” cropped up, but he did not specify what they were.
The plane took off at 6:58 a.m. and flew for 2½ hours, reaching a top speed of 189 miles per hour and a maximum altitude of 17,000 feet, Stratolaunch Systems Corp. said.
When Stratolaunch founder Paul Allen died last October, that led to speculation about the company’s future.
“It’s never been a market-driven company,” Chad Anderson, chief executive of Space Angels, a global network for early-stage space industry investors, said this year. “It’s been a passion project of a really wealthy individual. And now that individual is gone.”
Allen, a Microsoft Corp. co-founder, was not the only one pursuing this approach to commercial spaceflight.
In November, Richard Branson’s small-satellite launch firm Virgin Orbit flew its modified Boeing 747 with a rocket attached beneath one of its wings for the first time, marking a step toward its first test launch. The Long Beach company’s goal is to send small satellites into orbit via rockets released from the plane’s wing midflight.
Seattle-based Stratolaunch has pared back its plans since Allen’s death. In January it said it would cease development of a rocket engine and two planned satellite-launching rockets as well as a rocket-powered plane that could take a crew to space.
Stratolaunch described that retrenchment, which reportedly included dozens of layoffs, as “streamlining operations.” It said that would enable it to focus on conducting a first test flight of its massive satellite-launching plane — a goal it achieved Saturday — and on conducting a test launch of a Pegasus XL rocket from the plane.
At 385 feet wide, the Stratolaunch plane's wingspan is bigger than that of any other aircraft. The plane's twin fuselages — which make the craft sort of the airplane equivalent of a catamaran — are 238 feet long.
The previous wingspan leader was Howard Hughes’ World War II-era eight-engine H-4 Hercules flying boat, nicknamed the Spruce Goose. Surviving in an aviation museum in Oregon, it has an approximately 320-foot wingspan. Its fuselage is just under 219 feet long.
Although Stratolaunch calls its aircraft the world’s largest, other airplanes exceed it in length from nose to tail. They include the six-engine Antonov AN 225 cargo plane, which is 275.5 feet long, and the Boeing 747-8, which is just over 250 feet long.