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Stratolaunch: A Supersized Extraterrestrial Dream Come True


2011. Paul G. Allen – Billionaire and Microsoft co-founder, announces project Stratolaunch.

2012. 88,000 sq ft of composites production building is completed.

2013. Construction of 92,640 sq ft carrier assembly hangar and operations facilities at the Mojave Air and Space Port is completed.

2014. The company announces its plan to incorporate multiple launch vehicle options over a range of satellite sizes.

2015. The company is put under the supervision of Vulcan Aerospace – Paul Allen’s new venture.

2017. Stratolaunch is named ‘one of the world’s most innovative companies’ by Fast Company. The company gets its formal name as “Stratolaunch Systems Corporation.” Fuel tests begin. Maiden taxi test is rolled out on the Mojave Air and Space Port runway.

It’s 2018.

This American space transportation venture’s latest ‘air launch to orbit system’ is turning into an awe-inspiring, colossal aircraft with the largest wingspan ever – one that’s longer than a football field at 385 feet. So huge it is, it requires two cockpits and six jet engines just to take off!

You don’t build it unless you’re very serious, not only about wanting to see the plane fly but to see it fulfill its purpose. Which is getting vehicles in orbit.

Paul Allen

The Bigger, the Better?

Stratolaunch is all set to go on its maiden voyage before the year ends. The first flight will supposedly happen in September. It could also be delayed; we never know. Also, according to reports, the crew will launch the rocket 35,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean in 2020.

This twin-fuselage, catamaran-style flying machine will eventually transport rockets with astronauts and satellites into the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Of the two fuselages, only the right one owns a cockpit with a throttle, foot pedal and seats adorning sheepskin cushion.

It features three vital components – the aircraft itself, which will act as the carrier, a multi-stage launch vehicle, which will eventually be launched at a higher altitude, and a mating and integration system. The aircraft will carry a rocket ship to the cruising altitude and drop it, after which the latter will ignite and take off into space.

Such an air launch to orbit system means a rocket can be launched into space from anywhere, irrespective of weather conditions. The process will also require lesser rocket fuel than what is normally used. And, because Stratolaunch is robust and enormous, it will be able to efficiently support such heavy payloads.

The Four Vehicles for Stratolaunch

In the coming years, we will see Stratolaunch carrying these four launch vehicles:

  • Pegasus – a much dependable and proven vehicle with a capacity of carrying about 370 kg of payload.
  • Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) – a better vehicle than Pegasus with a capacity of carrying 3,400 kg of payload.
  • Medium Launch Vehicle – Heavy – a three-core version of MLV with a capacity of carrying 6,000 kg of payload.
  • Space Plane – a fully reusable vehicle with a capacity to manage cargo launch and cargo along with the transportation of crew.

This mighty beast flaunts six Pratt & Whitney turbofan jet engines retrieved from three Boeing 747 engines. With over 80 miles of wiring, its maximum takeoff weight is 1.3 million pounds. According to Allen, this supersized aircraft extraordinaire should be able to journey quickly from the ground to the stratosphere and back.

The Microsoft co-founder also believes the company must produce its own rockets to survive. After utilizing off-the-shelf engines and rebuilding surplus shuttle engines, Allen is now considering 3-D printing – a better and more effective process. He believes a new engine can be printed for almost one-fifth of the cost of rebuilding or repurposing old space shuttle engines.

You can just print these engines almost from scratch for so much less.

Paul Allen

The Giant’s got some Competition

The concept of air launch to orbit system isn’t exclusive to Stratolaunch alone. It is also not the first billionaire-backed spaceflight project. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic are working on a similar concept. The competition, you see, is pretty high.

Moreover, the launch of this big size aircraft has been delayed a lot and it has somehow lagged behind. Many of its allies turned foes and became its competitors. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which was working on supplying the rockets for Stratolaunch, ditched the project. Later, Musk introduced his wild launches – the orbiting sports cars and reusable rockets – which went on to intensify the already cutthroat competition.

This apart, many other companies are presently devising new plans to cut costs and come up with similar launches with higher reliability.

So, at this point in time, Stratolaunch faces a situation similar to that faced by Hughes H-4 Hercules aka Spruce Goose – the gargantuan plane designed to send soldiers and supplies during World War II. It flew only once. For a mile. That was it.

But, you never know – this one might just get lucky! Till then, fingers crossed.

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