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Next Step to Space

Allen, Rutan announce Stratolaunch Systems for commercial space launches

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft
Three-quarters rendering of the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft, which sports a 385-foot wingspan.

SpaceX multistage booster
The SpaceX multistage booster seen in this view from below.

Burt Rutan and Paul Allen
Burt Rutan, left, and Paul G. Allen announce their new space venture Tuesday, December 13, in Seattle.

December 13, 2011 – Burt Rutan, homebuilt aviation and private space flight icon, reunited with entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul G. Allen in Seattle Tuesday, December 13, to announce what they called “a revolutionary approach to space transportation: an air-launch system to provide orbital access to space with greater safety, cost-effectiveness, and flexibility.” Stratolaunch Systems, like their SpaceShipOne (SS1) collaboration seven years ago, uses a mothership to lift a vehicle to altitude, release it, then return to Earth as the launch vehicle rockets into space. While SS1 was proof of concept, Stratolaunch Systems is commercial application.

“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. “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.”

This project will be a collaboration involving Scaled Composites, which will build the carrier aircraft; a multi-stage booster, manufactured by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX); and a state-of-the-art mating and integration system built by aerospace engineering leader Dynetics. First flight of the carrier aircraft is envisioned in 2015.

The carrier aircraft will be the largest aircraft ever built, with a wingspan of 385 feet, dwarfing the 211 feet of a Boeing 747-400. “You don’t appreciate what the wingspan of 385 feet actually looks like” until you compare it to the 747, said Rutan, who retired on April 1, 2011, but certainly doesn’t appear to have slowed down very much.

The carrier has a twin fuselage like Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo with a large spar between them to which the launch vehicle attaches. Six 747 engines will propel its more than 1.2 million pounds gross weight up to 1,300 nautical miles.

A plane of this magnitude will require a large airport/spaceport such as Kennedy Space Center, with a runway at least 12,000 feet long. The Stratolaunch system will eventually have the capability of launching people into low Earth orbit, according to the company, but only after safety, reliability, and operability are demonstrated. Initial efforts will be focused on unmanned payloads.

It will be built in a new, 200,000-square-foot hangar being erected in Mojave, California, near Scaled Composites.

This new way to launch cargo and people into low Earth orbit stands directly on the shoulders of 2004’s Ansari XPrize-winning SpaceShipOne effort, in which Allen provided the resources and Rutan, EAA Lifetime Member 26033, along with his company Scaled Composites, provided the vision and leadership.

Other key Stratolaunch contributors include CEO and President Gary Wentz, a former chief engineer at NASA; and former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, serving on the Stratolaunch board. “We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets,” Griffin said. “Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations.”

Dynetics mating and integration system will be manufactured in Huntsville, Alabama, in Dynetics’ new 226,500-square-foot prototyping facility. “We are excited to play such a major role on this system,” said David King, Dynetics executive vice president and Stratolaunch board member. “This is an ambitious project unlike any that has been undertaken and I am confident the Stratolaunch team has the experience and capabilities to accomplish the mission.”

Corporate headquarters will also be in Huntsville.

To learn more about the project, click here.

View video animation of a Stratolaunch mission below.

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