Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has announced plans to build the world's largest plane in an effort to create a replacement for the retired US space shuttles.
Through his new company, Stratolaunch Systems, he's teamed up with Burt Rutan, one of the creators of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne, the first privately-funded, manned rocket ship to fly beyond earth’s atmosphere.
The plan is to combine the two to create a complete air-launch system.
"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," says Allen.
"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."
The system will have three primary components. A carrier aircraft, developed by Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, will be the largest aircraft ever flown.
It'll be combined with a multi-stage booster, manufactured by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies and a mating and integration system to be built by Dynetics. This, says the team, will allow the carrier aircraft to safely carry a booster weighing up to 490,000 pounds.
Allen's plans call for a first flight within five years.
Heading the project as president and CEO is Gary Wentz, a former chief engineer at NASA, and former NASA administrator Mike Griffin is a board member
"We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets," says Griffin.
"Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations."
Eventually, says the team, the Stratolaunch system will be able to launch manned missions into low earth orbit. Initial efforts, though, will be focused on unmanned payloads.
The carrier aircraft will operate from a large airport or spaceport, such as Kennedy Space Center, and will be able to fly up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point.
It will use six 747 engines, and will have a gross weight of more than 1.2 million pounds, with a wingspan of more than 380 feet. It will be built in a Stratolaunch hangar which will soon start to go up at the Mojave Air and Space Port.