SEATTLE — Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is teaming with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan to launch a space-travel operation.
The plan includes designing and building “the largest aircraft ever constructed,” which will carry a space rocket to an altitude of about 30,000 feet for an air launch into orbit.
The billionaire investor has established a new company called Stratolaunch Systems, based in Huntsville, Ala., to oversee the project.
At a news conference held Tuesday at the Seattle headquarters of Vulcan, Allen’s investment company, he said he’d dreamed of being an astronaut as a boy and that his “fascination with space never ended.”
At a time when the U.S. government has drastically cut funding for space exploration, Allen offered a grandiose vision of private industry stepping in to take over.
“Today we stand at the dawn of a radical change in the space launch industry,” Allen said. “We have many challenges ahead of us, but by the end of the decade Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit. It will keep America at the forefront of space exploration.”
The idea is to bring airport-like operations to the space-launch business, initially carrying commercial and government payloads, and later passengers.
Plans call for a first flight within five years.
The giant carrier aircraft designed to transport the rocket into the air will use six 747 engines, have a gross weight of more than 1.2 million pounds and a wingspan of 385 feet.
Stratolaunch Chief Executive Gary Wentz — a former chief engineer at NASA — said the company will acquire two used Boeing 747 jumbo jets to be cannibalized for parts, including the engines, the landing gear, the avionics and some of the hydraulics.
Wentz said his team has already identified the two jets it wants to buy and is inspecting them. Those parts will be attached to an all-new composite structure that looks like two parallel 747-like fuselages yoked together by a massive overhead wing, with a large rocket suspended between them.
Requiring a runway 12,000 feet long to take off or land, it will operate from a large airport or a spaceport, such as Kennedy Space Center, and will be able to fly up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point.
The multistage booster rocket will be manufactured by California-based Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX and led by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk.
The carrier plane will be built in a Stratolaunch hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. It will be near where Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, built SpaceShipOne — the first civilian rocket to take humans into space, which won Allen and Scaled Composites the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.
The mating and integration system will be manufactured in Huntsville by aerospace engineering firm Dynetics in a new, 226,500-square-foot prototyping facility.
Huntsville is the center of much of the past U.S. space-rocket development.
Stratolaunch’s chief operating officer and technical director is Susan Turner, another NASA veteran who most recently worked at the Space Technology Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, also a Stratolaunch board member, joined Allen and Rutan at the Seattle news conference.
Rutan said more than 100 people are already working on the project, and it will see a significant ramp-up as it moves deeper into the engineering and manufacturing phases.
The first jobs will be in Alabama, California and Florida.
©2011 The Seattle Times
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