Microsoft co-founder and billionaire, Paul Allen and pioneering aerospace engineer, Burt Rutan have joined forces to develop what they say will be the next generation of space travel.
Launching their new company, Stratolaunch Systems this week, Allen and Rutan announced ambitious plans to develop “the world’s largest plane” that would launch satellites, cargo and ultimately, people into orbit.
Allen and Rutan say they are stepping in to fill the gap left when the US government retired its Space Shuttle program earlier this year.
Speaking at a press conference this week, Allen shared the company’s vision to build a “private, orbital space platform business” for cargo and manned missions that can offer “greater flexibility, safety and cost effectiveness” than anything previously launched.
Allen funded and Rutan designed SpaceShipOne, which made the history books in 2004 as the first privately built and funded manned aircraft to fly to the edge of space.
The experimental spacecraft evolved into SpaceShipTwo, which has since been commercialised for space tourists and is backed by Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic.
It is hoped that Virgin Galactic’s first space flights for tourists will launch from its newly built spaceport in New Mexico by late next year.
The world’s largest plane?
Allen and Rutan say they plan to take space travel to the next level, getting spacecraft into orbit using the largest aircraft ever flown.
The giant twin-aircraft carrier would be built from parts of 747 jets.
Powered by six 747 engines, the carrier would airlift a spacecraft for mid-air drop launches, putting cargo and, eventually paying passengers into orbit.
Designed with a wingspan longer than a football field and a takeoff weight of more than 1.2 million pounds, the carrier would need a 12,000ft long runway for take-off and landing, the company said.
Stratolaunch said the carrier would need to serve a large airport or spaceport, such as Kennedy Space Center.
Allen declined to reveal how much he was investing in the venture but said it would be “an order of magnitude” greater than his investment in SpaceShipOne, which is estimated to have cost US$20m (£12.8m) to develop.
He also said of the new venture: “It will keep America at the forefront of space exploration and give tomorrow’s children something to search for in the night sky and dream about.”
The first unmanned test flight is penciled in for 2015.