Thursday, December 15, 2011

Paul Allen backs Stratolaunch spaceplane

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan have joined forces on a new winged rocket that would be carried aloft by a gargantuan twin fuselage mothership and then dropped from 30,000 feet for the climb to orbit.
Stratolaunch plane
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aircraft designer Burt Rutan have joined forces on the Stratolaunch spaceplane, pictured here in an animation. Image credit: Stratolaunch
The new rocket, announced on Tuesday, will be funded by Allen through a new company known as Stratolaunch and produced by Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California.
The 535-ton, six-engine carrier aircraft, with a wingspan of 385 feet, will be built by Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, a company founded by Rutan and now owned by Northrop Grumman. Dynetics of Huntsville, Alabama, will provide programme management and engineering support, along with the hardware used to attach the rocket to the carrier plane.
Allen, who funded Rutan's development of a small piloted spaceplane built by Scaled that won a $10m prize in 2004 for becoming the first private-sector manned craft to reach space, said his goal is to lower the cost of launching payloads — and eventually people — into low Earth orbit.
"Our national aspirations for space exploration have been receding," he said during a news conference. "This year saw the end of NASA's space shuttle programme. Constellation, which would have taken us back to the moon, has been mothballed as well. For the first time since John Glenn, America cannot fly its own astronauts into space.
"With government-funded spaceflight diminishing, there's a much expanded opportunity for privately funded efforts... Today, we stand at the dawn of a radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch will build an air-launch system to give us orbital access to space with greater safety, flexibility and cost effectiveness, both for cargo and for manned missions."
While saying the company faces technical challenges, "by the end of this decade, Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit," Allen said. "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. Work has already started on our project at the Mojave Spaceport."

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