Paul Allen unveils ambitious space-travel venture

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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

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

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.


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