The science-fiction pundits were wrong. The future of space travel doesn’t look like a Buck Rogers-style rocket poised to roar straight up into the twinkling heavens from a tinkerer’s backyard. What space travel will look like, according to a company called Stratolaunch Systems−which includes board member and backyard tinkerer Burt Rutan−is kind of unsurprising, more airplane-like, although no less fantastical.
Rutan has joined with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who financed the SpaceShipOne effort that successfully launched the first privately funded manned rocket outside the Earth’s atmosphere, to build an even larger version of a similar launching system. The goal is to haul a Space Exploration Technologies booster rocket to about 30,000 feet using a massive mother ship carrier airplane so that the rocket can be dropped, lit and then pointed skyward for the rest of the trip into Earth orbit.
The 490,000-pound booster rocket is based on a multi-stage SpaceX Falcon 9 design and will carry a 10,000-pound payload. The idea is that the cost of flying the booster rocket to 30,000 feet then zooming into orbit will be far lower than blasting off from the surface of the Earth. Stratolaunch also expects to be able to fly missions more frequently using the carrier aircraft system.
Allen had been interested in funding a follow-on to SpaceShipOne. After the success of the two flights that won the SpaceShipOne team the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004, Rutan and Mike Griffin, who became NASA administrator in 2005 (until 2009), discussed the idea of a follow-on. Eventually, Rutan, Allen and others interested in the idea formed Stratolaunch. “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.”
Stratolaunch is headquartered in Huntsville, Ala. Three companies are part of the Stratolaunch effort. Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipOne and is also building Virgin Galactic’s passenger-carrying SpaceShipTwo suborbital launch system, will build the carrier aircraft. Scaled Composites is a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. SpaceX is building the multi-stage booster rocket, and aerospace engineering firm Dynetics is responsible for the complex mating and integration system.
The carrier aircraft will be the largest aircraft ever flown, with a wingspan of 385 feet, maximum weight of more than 1.2 million pounds and the ability to fly more than 1,300 miles to reach an optimal launching point, according to Stratolaunch. The carrier will be powered by six turbine engines similar in size to those used on a Boeing 747. First flight of the carrier airplane is expected in 2016, and initial booster rocket flights will be unmanned. Stratolaunch plans to work up to manned flights eventually.
Rutan retired from Scaled Composites last April and moved from Mojave, Calif., to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. At the Dubai Air Show in November, Rutan gave no hint that he had been planning the Stratolaunch effort, but did discuss his design of a personal ground-effect aircraft that he planned to operate in and around rivers and lakes near his new home.