The Stratolaunch is enormous. It’s wingspan is 385 feet. It weighs 544 tons and sports 6 747 engines. It rolls on 26 wheels and carries 250,000 pounds of fuel. It is the largest airplane in the world. But this modern “Spruce Goose” won’t carry any passengers.
Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen announced the idea back in 2011, for a huge airplane to fly into the lower stratosphere and launch up to 13,500 pounds of rocket and cargo into orbit. On May 31, Allen rolled the Stratolaunch out of its hangar to give everyone a good look. It’s truly magnificent.
If it looks familiar, it’s because it was designed by Burt Rutan, whose Scaled Composites company (co-owned by Northrop Grumman) produces a variety of double-fuselage aircraft and space launch systems (White Knight and SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo) for Virgin Atlantic billionaire Richard Branson.
Today was reserved for fueling tests but when its operational, the plane will hopefully fly into low Earth orbit and launch a Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket into space. The rocket is designed to carry small satellites that weigh up to 1,000 pounds into orbit. One the Stratolaunch hits an altitude of 35,000 feet, the rocket that’s tethered to its belly will finish out the journey. If Allen’s full ambitions are realized, the company will be able to send crewed missions into space at a lower price than Russia is charging NASA.
Of course, SpaceX and Blue Origin, along with stalwart Boeing (whose ULA partnership launches the Russian RD180-powered Atlas V), might look at Stratolaunch as a competitor. But in the small world of rocket engineers, coopetition is the model. Orbital ATK has its own Antares rocket system, and also supplies GEM 63 boosters to ULA to power the second stage of the Atlas V.
All the launch companies, as well as NASA and DOD, will keep one eye on the super-ambitious, super-sized and super-beautiful, Stratolaunch vehicle. For me, it’s really hard to take my eyes off this big beauty.